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Myths about autism

There are many myths surrounding autism. Here we dispel some of the biggest.

Young boy with autism © Photo by Sara Dunn

In some ways, autism is a high-profile disability: actors get attention for playing characters with autism, authors get attention for writing about characters with autism, every now and again a celebrity decides to announce that they ‘feel autistic’ (some of whom actually do have diagnosable autism and some of whom are just misusing the word). Where a generation or two ago, not much was known about autism, as far as conditions go, it’s pretty famous nowadays.

And like many famous things, it has myths surrounding it. Here are some of the biggest.

Myth: People with autism have no empathy

Fact: People with autism can be very compassionate and care deeply about others – in fact, the clarity of vision that autism sometimes gives mean that some people with autism are about the most principled and socially conscious people you’ll ever meet. What people with autism struggle with is fitting their feelings of sympathy and caring into everyday interactions.

Autism can make it difficult to pick up on someone’s expressions, body language and tone of voice – which means that you might care a great deal about someone’s feelings once you know what they are, but need a bit more explicit communication before you can get a good grip on that. In the same way, you might be full of concern and love for someone, but have some difficulty in expressing it because showing what you’re feeling just isn’t your strong suit.

People with autism aren’t saints, any more than any of us are, but there’s no reason why autism means a person doesn’t care about others. It just makes it easier for them to come across that way – but that’s not usually the real picture.

Myth: People with autism are anti-social

Fact: Some people with autism are happiest in their own company, but most want friends as much as anybody else.

Social situations are, as you’d expect, more difficult for someone with a disability that impairs their social communication and interaction skills. It can take an effort for someone with autism to manage, and many are afraid of accidentally offending people (another reason why ‘no empathy’ is a myth: many people with autism really hate the idea of upsetting people). As a result, a person with autism may be shy – and since they will often have difficulty making small talk, they can sometimes come across as aloof or not interested. For a lot of people, though, this just a surface appearance: underneath, they may have very friendly feelings, and be extremely loyal and affectionate with people who understand them.

Myth: People with autism will never find romance

Fact: Plenty of people with autism have boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives, and are just as happy in their relationships as anyone else.

Dating is full of unspoken social rules, which can be tricky for someone with autism, and some people with autism also have some difficulty feeling comfortable with physical contact. Obviously these are drawbacks, and finding the right person can be harder than it is for a neurotypical person.

That said, autism doesn’t mean you can’t feel love, or that you aren’t loveable. Everyone has to work at their relationships, and with commitment and affection, romance can blossom for people with autism.

Myth: People with autism are stupid

Fact: Autism is a developmental disability, not an intellectual one. It affects someone’s ability to communicate and interact with people, it can make a person rather fixed in their habits, and it can give them some sensory issues – but none of these affect the intelligence.

Like everyone else, people with autism are a mixed lot and some are brighter than others. People with more severe impairments may be more prone to having a lower IQ, but then, people with milder impairments often have IQs that are above average, and anyone can be an exception to the general rule.

What can also happen, though, is that someone has an ‘uneven educational profile’ – which means that they’re a lot better at some things than others. Since most people with high IQs tend to perform at least fairly well across the board, it’s easy to see an area in which someone with autism is struggling and assume that it’s a sign that their general intelligence level is low.

People with autism can sometimes feel the same way about themselves: finding it really hard to manage something that most people manage effortlessly doesn’t do your self-esteem any good. As a result, some pretty clever people with autism feel stupid, when actually they just have some problem areas.

There are, of course, some people who have other learning disabilities and complex needs on top of their autism – sometimes including a low IQ. But then, the same can be said of any group of people. On the whole, there’s no reason to assume that a person with autism isn’t intelligent.

Myth: Autism is a mental illness

Fact: No, it’s a neurological condition that means your brain processes information differently. That may sound insignificant, but it’s actually an important distinction.

The DSM-V (Diagnostic Statistical Manual), which is the doctor’s handbook on mental illness, does list autism, which can give rise to confusion. However, autism isn’t classified as a mental illness. A mental illness is, basically, a disease that a person comes down with. A developmental disorder like autism, on the other hand, is something you’re born with and which will be part of you for the whole of your life. 

A person with autism might also have a mental illness: depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder aren’t uncommon, for instance. However, these don’t necessarily go with autism; the most you can say is that autism is often stressful and stress puts people at greater risk of many mental (and indeed physical) illnesses. A diagnosis of autism on its own doesn’t mean anything more than what it says on the tin – a developmental disability.

Myth: Autism is curable

Fact: To begin with, should we be trying to cure autism? While it’s certainly true that most people with autism can use some help so that their impairments don’t make life harder than it has to be, a lot of people – both with autism and without – argue that the condition  itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a different way of being, but difference can be as much an opportunity to learn from each other as it is a problem.

Some people with autism would like to be rid of it, but others feel it gives them a unique and valuable perspective on the world that they wouldn’t give up for anything. If there were a ‘cure’, there’s no question that it would be controversial and some people would be passionately against it.

However, at this point in time it’s academic, because no, there isn’t a cure. Autism is a condition that affects someone’s life from birth to death, and research has yet to pinpoint its exact cause. Interventions can help people with autism learn skills that they wouldn’t otherwise have, but at least for the foreseeable future, the condition itself is here to stay.

Myth: People with autism have mental superpowers

Fact: This is what families often call the ‘Rain Man’ myth: that all children with autism have some kind of ‘special ability’ like brilliant mathematics or musicianship. (If you meet a parent whose child has autism, please don’t ask what special abilities they have; parents get it a lot and seldom enjoy it!)

Actually, it’s not that simple. What this idea refers to is the phenomenon of the savant (someone with a skill that’s both exceptional by the standards of the general population and above their abilities in other areas) but the fact is that most people with autism aren’t savants, and not all savants have autism.

Exactly how many people with autism have ‘special abilities’ depends partly on how you define what a ‘special ability’ is. A commonly-cited statistic is that 1 in 10 people with autism have such gifts; however, a 2009 study at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London suggested that the number might be as high as 1 in 3 – though other psychiatrists still argue 1 in 10 is more accurate. Either way, it’s a minority – not a tiny minority, but certainly not everyone.

It’s also worth pointing out that among people with savant abilities, not all of those abilities are what you might call ‘marketable’. A person with an incredible capacity for higher mathematics might end up winning the Nobel Prize, but a person who’s memorized fifty years’ worth of bus timetables in a city they’ll never visit, while also incredible, is unlikely to get many public plaudits for it. Both people might still have some real difficulties in some day-to-day things most people take for granted. The ‘star’ savants you read about in the newspapers are truly impressive people, but they aren’t a guide to everyone who has autism.

Myth: Autism is a boy’s condition

Fact: Presently, four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism. However, there’s some debate as to whether this is a completely accurate reflection of the real statistics, as girls often ‘present’ their autism somewhat differently from boys and may be under-diagnosed as a result. Whether there would still be more boys than girls with autism if everyone who needed a diagnosis got one is an ongoing question.

Myth: Autism is caused by bad parenting

Fact: No, and it’s tragic that anyone ever believed this.

This myth goes back to the 1940s. Leo Kanner, one of the first psychiatrists to identify autism, blamed a ‘lack of maternal warmth’; the theory of the ‘refrigerator mother’ was further promoted by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim.

The theory, which is now thoroughly discredited, was that children with autism withdrew into themselves because their parents failed to give them the necessary warmth. It appears to have been based on the observation that parents of children with autism often didn’t cuddle or play with their kids – but as any parent can tell you nowadays, if a child has autism, they often don’t want to cuddle or play and can get very distressed if you try to force them. Saying that this acceptance of the child’s boundaries caused their impairments is simply reversing cause and effect. (Which isn’t to say that children with autism shouldn’t be encouraged to learn play skills, but it’s not easy for parents to manage this without support and education, which in the 1940s they just weren’t getting.)

The plain fact is that autism is not caused by ‘refrigerator mothers’, or refrigerator fathers, or by anything else the parents do. In reality many parents of children with autism are devoted to their sons and daughters, and bust their humps trying to help them. Autism is nobody’s fault and it’s not caused by emotional damage: it’s just how some people are.

Myth: Autism is the childhood form of schizophrenia

Fact: No, it’s a completely separate condition. Some early researchers believed this and called it ‘infantile psychosis’ – and the word ‘autism’ was first used to describe the withdrawn behavior of certain schizophrenic adults. However, it’s now understood that the two conditions have different causes and different effects. It’s possible for someone to coincidentally have both autism and schizophrenia, of course, but only in the same way that you can have both autism and a cold – the one doesn’t create the other.

Myth: Autism is caused by the MMR vaccine

Fact: This idea is based on a research study published in 1998 by Dr Andrew Wakefield. The flaws in that study have by now been pointed out multiple times: it only involved 12 children, and those children weren’t randomly selected – which means, in terms of method, you really can’t rely on it. Two major studies since have found no link, and Dr Wakefield’s theory has been discredited.

The myth probably persists because of an issue of timing. The MMR vaccine is usually administered around the age of two; the symptoms of autism often start to become clear at around two and a half – and these symptoms sometimes include ‘regression’, that is, losing skills they previously had and becoming more withdrawn. It’s easy to assume that the one caused the other, but the science suggests that this isn’t what’s happened.

Doctors advise that parents do make sure their children get the MMR as measles, mumps and rubella can be very dangerous. 

Myth: Everyone with autism is pretty much alike

Fact: Nope. As a popular saying goes, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Autism is a condition, not a personality, and people who have it are as different from each other as everyone else. Yes, they may have some things in common with each other – but then, you could say the same of neurotypical people or of people in general. We’re all individuals, and that’s true of everyone, autistic or not. 

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