Clearing Up Common Autism Myths

According to the Our easy access to untold amounts of information online and in popular culture can become more of a risk than a benefit when it is so difficult to determine whether it’s factual! We are constantly bombarded with eye-catching infographics and “educational” videos designed to get more views, not necessarily to communicate accurate and nuanced information.

A short blog post like this one, even written with the best of intentions, can’t possibly communicate the full breadth of information about the autistic experience. Entire novels and textbooks couldn’t achieve that either. As autistic advocate Dr. Stephen Shore is famously quoted, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” As such, the goal of this article is to help readers see through the falsehoods of common autism myths, and to accept each autistic person as the unique individual that they are.

An adult pushing to kids in a laundry basket

What’s Wrong with These Myths?

Some myths about autism may seem harmless, or even positive at first glance, but they are still based on stereotypes and generalizations. These can minimize and erase the true lived experiences of autistic people and even make it more difficult for someone to get a diagnosis of autism or access needed accommodations.

A common misconception about autism, for example, is that it is always associated with extreme precision and attention to detail. Someone who doesn’t experience that particular facet of autism may be misdiagnosed and provided with services that don’t actually support them or be criticized for not exemplifying the “good” aspects of neurodivergence. They may even come to feel that they don’t belong as part of the autistic community or avoid seeking out diagnosis in the first place.

And that is just one example of a myth that is commonly thought to be positive! Many others are more clearly actively harmful and may lead to autistic people being perceived as rigid, antisocial, emotionless, or incapable of living fulfilling lives. These negative assumptions are no truer of autistic people than they are of any group of people, and so it is important to be aware of and reject such overgeneralizations.

MYTH – Autism is caused by vaccines, parenting choices, gluten, heavy metals…

…the list goes on. Every few years it seems that autism is “blamed” on some different culprit. All have so far been disproven. Perhaps the highest-profile myth along these lines, that vaccines cause autism, was so soundly disproven that the perpetrator of the lie lost his medical license.

Much in the same way that treating a viral infection with antibiotics is ineffective, interventions based on false causes of autism will have little to no effect, and indeed may even have actively negative effects. In addition, time and money spent pursuing ineffective treatments takes away resources that could be put toward truly supporting autistic people.

Autism is more likely to be diagnosed in people who have autistic family members, and the CDC notes that autism is a function of a combination of “environmental, biologic, and genetic factors.” As such, it cannot be prevented or cured, nor is that a healthy goal. (Relatedly, this is why we do not consider our ABA services to be “therapy” at Waypoints, but rather a skill-building tool!)

MYTH – Autism is a childhood condition

This myth is easily disprovable based on the simple passage of time! Autistic children grow into autistic adults. Society’s focus on autistic children may be due to the fact that autism only became a formal diagnosis in the 1980s, and as such the earliest of those who received that diagnosis have only become adults relatively recently. It will likely take a while for the public perception to catch up to reality, but that process is being aided by fantastic books by autistic adults about their experiences, such as Unmasking Autism, Strong Female Character, and Ten Steps to Nanette.

Autistic people who benefit from environmental accommodations don’t simply grow out of those needs, though of course they may change over time. Failing to acknowledge the existence of autistic adults can lead to greater difficulty for those adults obtaining insurance coverage for support services, accommodations in the workplace, and even simply the understanding of their friends and loved ones. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is just one great resource for learning about and from autistic adults.

MYTH – Autistic people cannot learn effectively

This myth might have arisen simply because of the nature of humanity’s neurodiverse brain functioning, and the fact that everyone learns in different ways. According to the American Psychiatric Association, one of the diagnostic criteria for autism is “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.” This can sometimes make it difficult to learn in over-crowded traditional classrooms, but in a perfect world, teaching methods would be individualized and adapted to ALL students’ needs. The assumption that any person simply can’t learn is a dangerously defeatist perspective, and one that behavior analysis (often called the science of learning) is well-positioned to overcome.

Of course, autistic people may also be diagnosed with intellectual or learning disabilities, just as allistic (i.e., non-autistic) people. On the other side of that coin, autistic people are also just as likely to be intellectually gifted as their allistic peers. It may be the case that autistic people with another kind of disability are more likely to have their autism formally diagnosed, simply because they are already being assessed for other support needs. As with all of these myths, the most important thing is to approach each person based on their individual needs, not their diagnosis or any other kind of label.

MYTH – Autistic people are antisocial

Somewhat related to the myth above, the misconceptions that autistic people are antisocial, emotionless, or lack empathy may have developed due to the diagnostic criterion of social skill deficits. A deficit, however, does not mean an absence of or lack of interest in socialization. Autistic people often simply relate to others in different ways than what society at large considers “normal.” I wrote about this topic more extensively in another of our blog posts, Social Cues and Autism.

This autism myth is insidious, increasing the risk of autistic people being bullied and even treated as less than human. Someone who is perceived to not react when they’re teased may be seen as an easier target, and differences in how emotions are expressed may discourage neurotypical peers from reaching out to form friendships.

Facial expressions, body language, and social norms are often considered to be so universal that any deviation is immediately raised as a concern. The fact is, though, that these behaviors vary widely across cultures! To this day, it is all too common for interventions to attempt to change the behavior of autistic people, rather than improving understanding and acceptance on the part of society.

MYTH – All autistic people are savants

A savant is a person who is exceptionally talented in a specific area, while experiencing deficits in others. When it comes down to it, anyone could be considered a savant, regardless of their diagnosis. However, it is true that a proportion of people who have been diagnosed with autism may demonstrate an exceptional skill, such as photographic memory, mathematical aptitude, or playing a musical instrument. The exact prevalence of such skills in the autistic community has varied widely from study to study, from as low as 0.5% to as high as 33%.

The myth that savant skills are inherently a part of autism likely became established due to popular media like the movie Rain Man, TV show The Big Bang Theory, and even slightly more realistic portrayals of autism like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Unfortunately, as I noted earlier in this article, even this seemingly positive overgeneralization can have a negative impact. People who don’t exhibit savant-like skills may have their diagnosis denied or questioned, and those who do may have their needs for accommodations in other areas overlooked. It is important to learn about each individual’s strengths and needs, without making assumptions ahead of time.

Be a Fact-Finder!

One of our overarching goals at Waypoints is to celebrate our autistic clients and neurodiversity in general, and dispelling harmful myths and misconceptions is a part of that process. If you want to continue with us on the same journey, I encourage you to read another of our recent blog posts, How to Support Autism Awareness and Acceptance. Just as when it comes to the potential for misinformation being shared on any topic, it’s important to be prepared to question statements that seem too broad and overgeneralized, verify information through official sources, and speak up when you learn the truth!

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