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Georgia Harper

Youth participation
Friday 06 May 2016

10 misconceptions about autism


1. There’s more to it than meets the eye.

Perhaps due to a media focus on depicting autistic children through the perspective of their neurotypical loved ones, autism is rarely portrayed as anything more than a sum of difficulties with social interaction, misinterpretation of non-verbal cues and, of course, meltdowns. But there are many less immediately visible aspects of the condition, such as differences in sensory processing (many are over- or under-sensitive to sound, textures, brightness and so on), which, if acknowledged, would explain a lot of that so-called “strange” behaviour!


2. We have emotions – even if they’re not always expressed in the way you’d expect.

Differences in non-verbal expression sometimes lead neurotypical people to believe that we don’t experience emotional responses at all – but they’re there, even if you can’t see them. In fact, more recent research proposes that these traits may be due to excess of empathy rather than lack of it. Either way, we’re not robots.


3. It’s a LOT more complicated than just “high-functioning” and “low-functioning”.

As a society we’re finally getting beyond the idea that one person (I’m looking at you, Rain Man) can represent all autistic people. However, this is often replaced by the notion of two polar extremes of autism: high-functioning and low-functioning. This limited understanding often results in some people having their difficulties ignored whilst others have their capabilities ignored. The autistic spectrum is so much more diverse than that; whilst some need more support than others, we all have our own strengths and weaknesses and no two people are the same.


4. Being able to handle something sometimes doesn’t mean we can do it all the time.

Everyone has off-days: changes in health, mood or circumstances lead to changes in our ability to cope, and autistic people are no different. The existence of good days doesn’t mean we’re faking the bad days, and putting all our energy into getting through something overwhelming once doesn’t mean we can do it consistently and still function elsewhere!


5. Autism is part of who we are and should be accepted as such – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a disability.

If I were neurotypical I wouldn’t be me, and I believe people like me should be accepted as autistic rather than trying to “cure” us into different people. The autism acceptance movement is often accused of ignoring the very real difficulties faced by those on the spectrum, but this does not have to be the case. The social model of disability argues that disabled people face barriers due to a bias in the way society is organised towards one ideal of body and brain, rather than anything inherently wrong with the rest of us.


6. Autism is a lifelong condition – so it’s not just for kids.

Media representation of autism is improving, but the focus is still very much on young children. This means that many adults on the spectrum go completely undiagnosed and unsupported, and the problems faced by autistic adults are widely ignored – for example, only 15% are in full-time employment, a statistic which Ambitious About Autism seek to change with the ongoing #EmployAutism campaign.


7. It’s not just for boys, either.

At present, men and boys greatly outnumber women and girls diagnosed with autism, and until fairly recently it was accepted that the condition is simply more common in men. However, that gap is beginning to close as professionals realise that many autistic women are going undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. One explanation is that girls are socialised into masking their autistic traits, leading to different presentation. In addition, as is the case with many conditions, the initial research into autism focused almost exclusively on males, leading to bias in the diagnostic criteria.


8. Very few autistic people are savants – but our interests don’t have to be productive to be valuable.

It’s a common trope in media – the maths-obsessed prodigy who can reel off a massive list of prime numbers, the socially awkward genius who can remember endless details all the way back to childhood – but at most, only 1 or 2 in 200 people on the spectrum have an extraordinary talent to this degree. An intense degree of interest or passion for something often comes with autism, and many do make a career out of pursuing those interests, but even where this isn’t possible, they can still be invaluable in making friends and coping with the challenges of being autistic in a neurotypical world.


9. We don’t know what causes autism – but it isn’t vaccines.

In 1998, a research paper linked autism to the MMR vaccine; that study has been discredited for years since, but the idea persists, resulting in reduced vaccination rates and various measles outbreaks in recent years. The “vaccines cause autism” myth is dangerous – measles can kill – and even if it were true, surely it’s better to be autistic than to be dead from a preventable disease?


10. It’s not all doom and gloom!

Autism comes with its difficulties, but can also bring advantages – particularly regarding attention to detail, organisation and simply bringing a different perspective to the table. We’ve got a long way to go, but perceptions are changing, and society is coming to realise what autistic people have to offer if given the opportunity to thrive.


About the author

Georgia Harper is a myVoice Content Creator.