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15 Myths About Autism, Busted

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This post intends to good-naturedly “bust” some of the misconceptions autistic individuals and their families often face on a daily basis. Bear in mind no one rule will apply to everyone – every autistic person is different. I have used common examples, but the presentation is generally unique to every individual.

Myth 1 – “You don’t look autistic.”

This phrase is used a lot – but the truth is autism is often an invisible condition. Often people will use this phrase in relation to autistic individuals who are verbally articulate, or who have become adept at “masking” any functional impact. Some autistic people have external behaviors such as stimming (self-stimulatory behaviors such as rocking or flapping) or a sensitivity to noise that means they often wear ear defenders, leading to people assuming they are autistic, but equally autistic people can have very subtle stims and their outward appearance doesn’t necessarily belie what is happening internally.

Myth 2 – Autistic people cannot/don’t make eye contact.

Difficulty making eye contact is just one possible characteristic of autism. Often autistic people can “fake” eye contact by looking at other points of the face which can be indistinguishable from true eye contact. Some Autistic people may also make overly intense eye contact which can be perceived as staring inappropriately.

Myth 3 – Far more males than females are autistic.

While gender ratio estimates have been suggested as high as 16 males to 1 female, the generally accepted consensus for some time has been 4 males to 1 female. However, experts are increasingly coming to believe the ratio is far closer than previously estimated, with Tony Attwood suggesting it is as close as 2 males to 1 female. There are many possible reasons for this – such as females being more likely to go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, due to their differing presentation, a bias in the diagnostic and screening tools used in assessment, and the differing personality traits males and females have learned in society that affect presentation, with girls often being more internal and males sometimes presenting more external behaviors.

Myth 4 – Autistic people lack empathy.

Autistic people often say that actually they feel an excess of empathy, sometimes struggling to differentiate other people’s emotions from their own, finding others’ sadness overwhelming. The lack of empathy theory originates from Baron-Cohen’s research into Theory of Mind which suggested autistic people were “unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes” or understand that others have inner worlds – thought processes and memories that differ from their own. While autistic people may struggle to instinctively understand these things, they will often endeavor to understand others, and most definitely can show empathy for others’ experiences and emotions.

Myth 5 – Autistic people can’t be chatty/articulate.

Autistic people may be nonverbal, but lots of autistic people can be extremely articulate and expressive. As mentioned “masking” or “camouflaging” can be very powerful in social situations. Some autistic people are overly social, so they may be extremely talkative and interactive.

Myth 5 – Autism means you are less intellectually able.

Autism is not an intellectual disability, although some autistic individuals may have an intellectual disability in addition to their autism. Many autistic people are extremely intelligent, achieving high levels of education such as Ph.Ds.

Myth 6 – Autism is over-diagnosed – and used as an excuse for bad parenting.

Truthfully, it can (and often is) incredibly difficult to get a diagnosis of autism. Some families fight for several years to get an assessment. The assessment process is usually extremely thorough, with evidence obtained across settings and uniform assessment tools used to diagnose according to internationally defined criteria. This process is often carried out by a multi-disciplinary team comprised of several professionals of different disciplines, such as a pediatrician, occupational therapist and speech and language therapist. If anything, research suggests that autism is currently underdiagnosed.

Myth 7 – You can grow out of autism.

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition. You definitely cannot grow out of it, although with the right support and interventions, any associated difficulties may reduce over time. Bear in mind that functioning is fluid and may fluctuate over a person’s life cycle, in response to major life events, times of increased stress or change or even throughout a day.

Myth 8 – Autism is caused by “cold parents.”

This myth comes from the old theories of “refrigerator mothers/refrigerator parents” that circulated in the 1950s. Leo Kanner and Bruno Bettleheim were instrumental in the creation and dissemination of this theory – but we know now that autism is absolutely not caused or perpetuated by poor or cold parenting. While we do not know the exact origin of autism, it is now widely believed to be an unknown combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Myth 9 – We didn’t have autism in my day.

Yes, we did! The difference is that people with autism either were missed or misdiagnosed, leaving them without support, or in other cases were institutionalized, meaning they were segregated and “invisible” to a large part of society. A lot of people are now being diagnosed late in life, with a famous example being Anthony Hopkins, who says he struggled in school and always felt different but didn’t know why, finally being diagnosed in his 70s.

Myth 10 – Everyone is a “little bit autistic.”

This isn’t true. While everyone may identify with some autistic traits, they aren’t a little bit autistic, anymore than someone who suggests that a single trait such as liking a clean home means they are a little bit OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). There are strict diagnostic criteria to be assessed as autistic which means individuals will have to show traits in several areas and they must be pervasive and lifelong. It can belittle an autistic person’s life experience to suggest that everyone is a little bit autistic because of one or two “quirks” that correlate with autistic traits. With that being said, we may welcome the empathy these shared experiences can provide – if it is not equated with having the same life experience we have.

Myth 11 – Autistic people are loners.

While some autistic people prefer their own company and like a lot of alone time, as they find social demands overwhelming, that doesn’t necessarily make them loners. A lot of us are extremely social and have good social networks, though we often need to time to recover from the effects of social interaction.

Myth 12 – Autistic people are more likely to commit a crime.

Research shows that autistic people are more likely to be the victims and witnesses of crime than offenders. While there are certain risk factors that can make involvement with the criminal justice system more likely in some cases, such as social naivety leading to the risk of exploitation, the vast majority of autistic people are law-abiding, with some studies finding them no more likely or less likely to commit a crime than the general population.

Myth 13 – The autism spectrum is a line – low functioning to high functioning.

Autism is far too complex and multi-faceted to be described by simple functioning labels. An individual may be articulate, intellectually able and have a good social network – but they may also be self-harming and/or struggling to function with simple everyday tasks. The rate of suicide attempts in the “high functioning” autistic population is up to nine times higher than in the general population. Other autistic people may be labelled “low functioning” if they have poor verbal skills and struggle academically, but they could also be more content and functional on a daily level in some ways. It all comes down to how you think about “what is functional?”

Spiky profiles are a better description – intense areas of skill coupled with intense areas of need.

Myth 14 – Autism is a mental health condition.

While autism often occurs alongside mental health conditions such as anxiety, autism is not itself a mental health condition. It is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that is lifelong. Autism is accepted in law to be a physical difference in the brain and many prefer to think of it as simply a different neurotype.

Myth 15 – “Oh, like Rain Man?”

Nope. While there are autistic people with savant skills such as those portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in this famous role, such as Stephen Wiltshire who can memorize the New York skyline after a helicopter ride and draw it from memory, the vast majority of us are as varied as anyone else and don’t possess a genius level “special talent” such as this. We have strengths and weaknesses just as anyone does, and our IQs are just as varied.

Thank you for reading, and I hope the post helped provide some useful answers to common misconceptions!

Getty image by Adrian825.

This article originally appeared on Autism Tinted Glasses.

Originally published: May 5, 2018
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