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Autism Awareness Month — 10 Myths About Autism Busted

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We may think we know a lot about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because we see it portrayed in the media more and more, but too many myths about the disorder continue to persist. These myths can be damaging for children and adults with ASD. According to the CDC, 1 in 68 people is on the autism spectrum, so it’s important to bust these myths during Autism Awareness Month to make the world an easier place for our friends, family members and anyone else with autism.

Myth: Autism Looks the Same in Everyone

Busted: Autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that it is different for everyone. While the neurological evidence might be similar, the way it manifests itself can vary by individual. This is what makes treatment so difficult. Each person with ASD is an individual. Like everyone else they will have certain skills and abilities, as well as their own difficulties and challenges. They will respond differently to different types of treatment.

It is true that there are key traits most people with ASD share. These tend to come across as an inability to establish intimacy, an inability to express emotions in a meaningful way, and difficulty communicating emotions with gestures and facial expressions. Beyond that, the ways these traits and challenges present themselves for each individual can be very different and sometimes difficult to identify.

Myth: Childhood Vaccines Cause Autism

Busted: This one needs to go away already. There is no credible science linking childhood vaccines to cases of autism. This myth was started in 1998 by a quack named Andrew Wakefield. He published a paper that erroneously linked the common measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism. After his paper was widely discredited by other doctors and researchers, the journal that published it retracted it. The former Dr. Wakefield lost his license and can no longer practice medicine.

Nearly 20 years later, every reliable study has failed to show any relation between vaccines and autism. New research has even shown lack of eye contact as a warning sign of autism in infants as young as two months, which is before they’ve received their shots. It is important to note that there is a relation between children not getting vaccines and the rise of preventable diseases.

Myth: People With Autism Are Antisocial

Busted: The truth is that people on the autism spectrum may have more difficulties socializing than someone who is neurotypical, but that doesn’t mean they don’t wish to have fulfilling social relationships with the people around them. Many times, autism causes a person to struggle with social skills because of an inability to decode social cues, effectively communicate a desire to form a friendship, or easily develop basic social interaction skills. Kindness and patience will go a long way in helping a person with autism to make a friend. They don’t lack the desire to have friends, they simply lack the tools to make it happen.

Myth: An Autistic Person Has No Emotions

Busted: Contrary to what you may see displayed on the outside, an autistic person definitely feels emotions. Just because the disorder can cause a person to communicate emotions differently, perhaps with stimming or other behaviors, that doesn’t mean she isn’t feeling. Another struggle comes in the form of discomfort with physical affection. We assume that a touch will help sooth someone and show we care, but when that touch causes a bigger reaction, the autistic person is left uncomforted and more distressed. Learning how each individual deals with, processes or expresses emotions will help everyone feel more safe and comfortable.

Myth: Being Autistic Means Lacking Empathy

Busted: One reason autistic people get stigmatized as lacking empathy is because people with ASD can’t read people as well as others. They might not understand what someone is feeling based on indirect physical or verbal cues. Shrugs and sarcasm don’t express emotions to them as obviously as they do to neuro-typical peers. Also, in the same way that autism doesn’t mean a person doesn’t feel, it also doesn’t mean a person can’t empathize. In fact, some experts and parents will tell you that people with autism can feel more deeply the pain of others than their non-autistic counterparts.

Again, being on the autism spectrum usually causes someone to have difficulty expressing the empathy they have for others, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. They are more often highly concerned with the feelings of those around them and have fewer filters for masking that pain from themselves. Being with a child who is visibly upset could cause an autistic child to have a “meltdown.” This is not because the child wants attention, it’s because they feel very upset for their companion and haven’t yet been given the right tools for expressing that.

Myth: Everyone With ASD Has a Savant Gift

Busted: We see this a lot in movies and on television because it makes a compelling story, the silent genius who can count cards or play the piano better than anyone, but who can’t relate to those around them. For some reason this has translated into a belief that anyone on the autism spectrum will also have some kind of savant gift.

First of all, people with autism are people, which means they each have their own skills and limitations, just like everyone else. Like every other human, some may be good at math or memorizing or have incredible musical talent, but that’s solely based on the individual, not the autism. In truth, about 10 percent of people on the autism spectrum will exhibit savant abilities. Others have what are commonly referred to as “splinter skills,” areas where they excel beyond their other skill levels.

Myth: People With Autism Are Mentally Disabled

Busted: Autism is not a mental or intellectual disability. Autism is a neuro-biological disorder and a developmental disability. Studies have shown that people on the autism spectrum have “abnormalities in brain structure and neurotransmitter levels.” This means that people with ASD may have a tough time learning certain, more innate things the general public picks up quickly, but they are not mentally lacking.

A person with autism may not speak or may have a difficult time expressing themselves, but that does not mean that they are not intelligent. On the contrary, people with autism generally have normal to high I.Q.s, although some of them may be hard to test.

Myth: Autism Is Easily Treated or Cured

Busted: There is no cure for autism. There are treatments, but because autism is a spectrum disorder, it manifests in everyone differently, so there is no “one size fits all” kind of treatment. The good news for all of us is that, while not simple or easy, there are treatments for people on the autism spectrum and the earlier they are diagnosed and can begin treatment, the better. Recent studies have even shown some children test out of the diagnosis after intensive, early intervention.

However, experts do point out that most autism treatments are focused on addressing symptoms of autism and not the neurological issues themselves. Even so, these treatments can help autistic people adjust to the world around them and become more able to express themselves and form the meaningful relationships and everyday lives they desire.

Myth: People With Autism Cannot Be Successful in Society

Busted: It’s a common myth that an ASD diagnosis means a life of sitting quietly in a corner putting things in straight lines. But this simply isn’t true. People on the autism spectrum, no matter where on that spectrum they fall, can learn social skills and coping methods to handle their symptoms and then grow to have successful lives as contributing members of society. In fact, some symptoms of autism make people with ASD very desirable employees.

When autism is diagnosed early and a child’s symptoms are identified, if that child receives effective treatment, he or she can learn to handle difficult social situations and become better at processing emotions and managing stimming behavior. The key is availability and quality of treatment, and the education of school administrators and teachers to better help students with the disorder.

Myth: There Is a New Epidemic of Autism

Busted: This myth is a bit harder to bust because even experts don’t completely agree. The fact is that ASD is not new. The first description of autism was set forth by scientist Leo Kranner in 1943. This however isn’t the first time autism was recorded. The earliest description of a child with autism was written in 1799.

We also know that autism diagnoses have increased by about 600 percent in the last 20 years. The primary reason for this increase is the introduction of the idea of autism as a spectrum disorder by British psychiatrist Lorna Wing in the 1980s. This meant that the strict criteria for being diagnosed as autistic was loosened to include children and adults with a variety of symptoms, putting them on the autism spectrum and making it easier to understand their difficulties.

Most experts agree that many of the children diagnosed with ASD would not have received the same diagnosis 20 years ago. Finally, the word “epidemic” is usually used in reference to a disease. Autism is a brain disorder, not a disease. With more correlations tied to genetics than environmental factors, autism shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as communicable diseases that spread like wildfire.

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