Autism awareness has increased several times over in the last two decades. Autism is now a household word. This awareness, however, has not significantly decreased some of the misconceptions about autism.
It's easy to find material about what autism is. You probably already know a fair amount. It's a developmental disability marked by deficits in communication and social navigation, as well as displaying intense, narrow interests.
Unfortunately, it can be more difficult to find information about what autism is not. That's what I would like to focus on in this piece. I've chosen ten of the most destructive myths about autism.
1. Autistic people do not experience empathy.
Let's start with one of the more pervasive myths. This is still frequently quoted by experts when describing autism. However, it's simply not true.
Empathy is usually described as the ability to copy another person's emotions. Doing this correctly requires at least some understanding of how th other person's mind works. That is always more difficult when the other person has a different neurotype.
It may appear that autistic people have more trouble with that because most of the people around us have minds that work different from ours. Once we can learn how the neuronormal mind works, empathy becomes much easier, and in fact, it tends to be easier with other autistic people.
2. Autistic people do not experience emotions.
Perhaps the root of this myth has to do with the fact that autistic people, especially children, do not tend to use nonverbal communication the same way as the people around them. This means that we tend to show emotions in different ways that most people are not used to seeing. In addition, the same situation will often trigger different emotions in autistic people from what it might cause in a neuronormal person.
3. Autistic people can't form relationships.
From what I can tell, most autistic people do place more importance on our own personal interests than other people. However, that does not mean that relationships, whether familial, friendship, or romantic, are any less important to us.
Don't forget that a relationship is a two-way process. If an autistic person is interested in pursuing a relationship with a person, and the other person is willing to reciprocate, autistic people can and do form meaningful relationships with others.
4. Autism is usually accompanied by an intellectual disability.
There have been times when the majority, or even all, of recognized autism diagnoses came with an intellectual disability. For a time, that was even part of the definition. It was reinforced by the fact that autistic children were often institutionalized and placed in a setting where learning opportunities were not present.
With the recognition of “high-functioning” autism and the addition of Asperger's syndrome, we know that autistic people are often quite intelligent. In fact, upwards of 70% of recognized cases of autism have no intellectual disability.
This has also led to a belief that all autistic people are geniuses, which is equally untrue. We are all individuals, and each of us is different. Autistic people exist along the entire range of human intelligence.
5. Autistic people are all the same.
This usually takes the form of, “I've seen [insert TV show or movie here],” or, “My [insert relation here] is autistic, so I know all about autism.” It can even take the form of, “I'm autistic, so all autistic people can be like me.”
The truth is that there appears to be several different kinds of autism. Even within that, we're all individuals. Each of us has different abilities and different needs. Some of us struggle with things that others find easy. A common saying in the Autistic community states that “if you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person.”
6. There is a normal child trapped inside an autistic shell.
This can be a particularly destructive myth. It's typically quoted by those claiming to provide a cure or a miracle treatment, playing on parents' desperation. It often leads to parents focusing so much on trying to save their child from being swallowed up by autism that they forget to build a relationship with their child.
The truth is that building a relationship is the most important thing you can do. Nurturing the child's interests, planning activities with the child, and just generally having fun are the best ways to cause the child to open up and grow as a person. The child will always be autistic, but that doesn't have to be a setback.
7. There is something in the environment that caused autism or aggravated symptoms.
Whether it's vaccines, lead, smoking while pregnant, or any number of others, something must have caused this autism.
In all likelihood, autism appears to be genetic. Unfortunately, the myth of an environmental cause often diverts resources away from needed supports and services, and directs them instead to trying to find the source of the autism. It can also lead to some off the same problems caused by myth #6 in this list.
This myth is also built on the next one:
8. There is a massive autism epidemic.
Autism rates have increased from 1 in 10,000 in the 1960's to 1 in 68 now. That's a huge increase.
For this, it's important to recognize the difference between autism and an autism diagnosis. The definition of autism has increased dramatically since it was first described by Leo Kanner. The vast majority of us are in a part of the spectrum that wasn't even recognized in most of the world until the 1980's, and wasn't broadly known by professionals until the 1990's.
Furthermore, several studies have shown that when you use consistent definitions across the generations, there appears to be no significant increase.
9. Autism is a childhood disorder.
Autistic children grow up into autistic adults. It should seem obvious when you think about it. The problem is that most people don't think about it. That can lead to inadequate services for adults.
10. Autistic people can't achieve success.
This is usually based on the idea that there are no benefits to autism. We have plenty of advantages that we can use. Logical thinking, intense focus, and attention to detail, just to name a few. Additionally, as I've said before, we're all different, and we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. If given a chance, there is no reason an autistic person can't succeed in life.
I've had to condense most of these to fit them all in one piece. If you want to know more about any of them, keep checking back, or read any of the many other autistic bloggers out there. I look forward to exploring these myths further, as well as other autism-related thoughts, in the future.