Common Misconceptions about Autism Deconstructed

6 minute read

By Jordana Weiss

Autism is a common disorder characterized by impaired social cognition and communication with others. The diagnosis of autism can mean very different things to a family’s life. Start a search today to clear up common misconceptions about autism.

Many children are diagnosed with mild to moderate autism which only slightly impacts their learning and socializing, while other parents are told that their child’s severe autism limits their independence, which will affect their entire life.

1. It can be caused by vaccinations

This theory gained popularity for a few different reasons. The first article citing vaccines as a possible cause for autism was published in The Lancet — which itself is a reliable source — but it was later revealed the the scientist who authored the story was secretly on the payroll of the anti-vaccine industry. Then, the information from the study was picked up and disseminated by different celebrities, who have a much broader reach than the average scientist. Jenny McCarthy was a prominent anti-vaxxer, as was Jim Carrey and Toni Braxton. The theory that vaccines can cause autism has been entirely debunked.

2. People with autism can’t express emotions

This commonly-held belief, that people with autism cannot express emotions, is entirely false and is actually very dangerous. Can you imagine thinking that someone who speaks a different language than you are incapable of rational thought or feeling? To some people who have autism, it sometimes feels like they are not able to communicate effectively with people who are neurotypical, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have feelings. It just means that they express them in different ways.

3. People with autism don’t have compassion for others because they don’t understand neurotypical emotions

Again, this is a complicated belief, but one that at its core is simply not true. Having autism means that you may not be able to read the social cues of others, and have to rely on the words that they are saying instead. This means that if you are communicating about your feelings to someone with autism, it may be necessary to state them plainly rather than relying on social cues like tone of voice and body language. Talking through your feelings is a much clearer way to communicate them to someone with autism. However, having autism doesn’t mean that one lacks compassion.

4. Autism is an intellectual disability

Actually, with autism, the opposite is often true. Autism spectrum disorder is often characterised by a high IQ and exceptional abilities in fields like math, architecture, and music. Generally, people who have autism who have a very high IQs are shown to respond most favorably to treatments, allowing them to learn the skills that many other children are born simply knowing. Typically, these treatments focus on honing the child’s social skills, speech, and language. Considering that often the child has to learn an entire set of social skills that simply comes naturally to most other children, it is hard to believe that some people consider autistic children intellectually disabled.

5. Everyone with autism exhibits the same symptoms and abilities

Although they have done a lot to shine a light on autism and autism spectrum disorders, films like Rain Man and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close have also caused some people to believe that everyone with autism behaves a similar way. This is most likely because commercial film and television, while useful, are not nuanced genres. Characters have to be broad and relatable in order to appeal to the widest variety of audience possible. Because of this, characters with autism in the media are often portrayed similarly, which has made people forget that autism is a spectrum disorder. There are some people with minimal symptoms who are considered autistic, while others show exceptional abilities like Ray Babbitt from Rain Man.

6. Autism is a diagnosis for life

Previously, it was thought that autism was a diagnosis for life. However, with therapies and treatments continuing to improve all the time, there are some children who are able to receive treatment and are considered to be “recovered” if the treatment is successful. The likelihood of a child being able to be taken off the spectrum is directly correlated to the age that they are diagnosed. An early diagnosis allows for early intervention, which has been shown to be the most effective in teaching a child the skills that they need to interact with the neurotypical world around them. However, these studies have only focused on children with autism. People who are diagnosed later in life often face obstacles on the road to independence.

7. There is an epidemic of autism diagnoses going on right now

While it is true that the rate of autism diagnoses has been steadily increasing, most doctors and scientists believe that this is a result of changing diagnostic criteria, and awareness, rather than an actual epidemiological reason. All this is to say that most likely the increase in diagnoses is because of an increase in awareness about autism and the autism spectrum. 50 years ago, a child may have only been diagnosed with autism if their symptoms were severe and very noticeable. Now, doctors are able to pinpoint behaviors like repetitive stacking, and lack of eye contact, and are able to test for autism early on.

8. Autism can be cured

There are some parents who chose to put their faith in things other then medicine and therapy to “cure” their children of autism. Some people believe that alternative treatments like diet, relaxation, and even heavy metal draining therapy can help “cure” their children of autism. While it’s important to realize that many of these treatments may seem beneficial, the most that they can do is treat the symptoms of autism. Many children with autism also suffer from a variety of allergies, and trouble sleeping. While treating these problems is a useful pursuit, hoping to change your child’s brain chemistry with these treatments will inevitably fail. Some of them are just plain ridiculous, such as chelation therapy, a type of therapy where heavy metals like mercury are flushed from the body. It can be dangerous, and there are no proven benefits.

9. Repetitive behavior in children should be stopped

Repetitive behavior is one of autism’s most obvious symptoms as many people with autism find it soothing to repeat motions over and over again. This can be anything from hand flapping to rocking back and forth. These behaviors are often stopped by parents, or teachers because they distract others and are not a “normal” behavior. However, these behaviors should be considered normal unless they are physically harmful. Many doctors have found that children who exhibit repetitive behaviors will grow out of them once they learn that these coping mechanisms make them stand out.

10. People with autism are a danger to themselves and others

Many people fear children or young people with autism because they incorrectly believe that people with autism are more likely to commit a crime than the average person. This cannot be farther from the truth. The interactions between autistic people and law enforcement personnel are often marked by an inability to understand each other. Many people now are calling for increased training of police officers so that they feel more comfortable dealing with people in intense situations who are not neurotypical. There have been many cases in the past where a misunderstanding on the part of someone with autism leads to disastrous consequences, but these situations should not be taken as part of a larger pattern.

11. Autism is a result of cold and unavailable parents

This myth is not only untrue, it’s also cruel. In the 1940s, it was a commonly held belief that parents who were emotionally unavailable would cause their children to withdraw and become autistic. An Austrian doctor named Bruno Bettelheim was the author of this theory, and it took decades to dispel the myth that he essentially created from scratch. This theory has no basis in fact. Although there are genetic factors involved in determining whether or not a child will be diagnosed with autism, it has nothing to do with the parent’s parenting style or emotions.

Jordana Weiss