10 Myths About Autism

chartby Jennifer Johnson

Autism and its lesser-known relatives in the autism spectrum of disorders has found itself on the receiving end of a generous amount of attention lately. Affecting around 3.4 out of every 1,000 children between the ages of 3 and 10 every year, the controversies surrounding autism usually involve the mysteries behind the staggering rise of diagnoses over the past five years as well as its heavily disputed origins. Not surprisingly, a number of myths and misconceptions drown out the realities of individuals and families who confront autism on a daily basis. A proper understanding of what constitutes and how to work with and against autism and autism spectrum disorders allows patients to seek the necessary treatment and move on to live happy, productive, and stable existences.

1. Autism is a form of mental retardation.
Individuals with autism and autism spectrum disorders actually harbor average to above average intelligence. The conditions are considered neurodevelopmental in origin, and diagnostic criteria include communication issues, difficulty in social situations, and repetitive behavior patterns. At no point does mental retardation ever factor into an autism diagnosis – any possible cases where both conditions are present have nothing to do with one another. Some patients with autism perform excellently in some academic areas and very poorly in others, which some mistake as full mental retardation.

However, between 2% and 5% of autism patients do simultaneously display some degree of mental retardation via the genetic disorder Fragile X. It gets its name from a defect on the X chromosome where it appears pinched when placed beneath a microscope. Mental retardation, or other severe intellectual impairment, results from a repetition of the CGG codon on the FMR1 allele, with between 230 and 4000 repeats. A normal FMR1 gene contains between 6 and 55 repetitions. Because of this, the FMR1 protein becomes silenced and impedes the development of synapses, axons, and neural circuits. It also places blocks in memory and learning capabilities as well. Even though the staggering majority of individuals with ASD do not also contend with Fragile X, 50% of males with Fragile X display the diagnostic criteria for autism or a related disorder. So while it is entirely possible for autism and mental retardation to exist in one individual, autism itself is actually classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder and not an intellectual impairment.

2. The autistic cannot forge healthy relationships.
One of the main factors in a diagnosis of autism or an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger’s or Rett’s involve a difficulty in forming social connections. Some of the earliest indicators of autism or an ASD come in the first few months of life. The individual tends to avoid interaction and eye contact and appear apathetic towards others, occasionally preferring solitude and rejecting physical contact such as hugs or kisses from parents and other loved ones. In addition, the autistic struggle with understanding nonverbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions. Because of this, they face a much harder time connecting socially than those without autism or related disorders.
But just because they face down difficulty in forging relationships does not mean the autistic are entirely incapable of involvement in healthy connections. It takes patience and understanding, but it is not impossible for the autistic to enjoy productive, loving friendships by any stretch of the imagination. Friends and family alike need to make the effort to understand how autism operates and how those with the diagnosis function. It is important to realize that an apparent disinterest does not necessarily indicate actual disinterest. Many autistics genuinely desire to connect with those around them but grapple against their difficulties in social situations. Sadly, though, some individuals cannot get past the apparent detachment and do not want to enter into a friendship with an autistic. This does not mean that those with autism or an ASD are incapable of engaging in healthy, productive relationships with others.

3. Most people with autism are not very verbal.
Because autism exists as a spectrum disorder, the severity of the symptoms varies from case to case. One of the main characteristics of autism involves a difficulty interpreting and expressing language verbally. Many rarely, if ever, make regular noise as infants, and the ones that do quit soon afterwards. Later on in life, they may develop erratic verbal tics such as extended echolalia, repetition of the same phrases, or an obsession with single words. Others mimic the speech and vocabulary of adults with little to no affectation in their voice, having missed out on verbal and nonverbal nuances of speech. Only the most severe cases remain mute the rest of their lives. The reality is that those with autism and autism spectrum disorders range from extremely competent to poorly developed or nonexistent verbal skills. So while all individuals with autism struggle with verbal development to some extent, not every case involves limited or nonexistent speech or communication.

In fact, Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder with symptoms very similar to those of obsessive-compulsives, completely overturns this myth altogether. Though subjected to many of the same development and communication delays as other autistics, one of the more defining characteristics of Asperger’s involves a generous vocabulary and enthusiastic discussions about their areas of interest. They may exhibit a lack of nonverbal and gestural signifiers or speech impediments – indicators of disrupted development, certainly, but stand as a sterling example that autism does not always involve limited or nonexistent verbal communication.

4. “Autistic” is just another word for “savant.”
Many individuals with autism excel in one creative or academic area yet perform poorly in others, leading people unfamiliar with the condition to label them as “savants.” This is an incorrect conjecture on two levels. For one, savant syndrome is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, or DSM-IVTR – the official diagnostic handbook of the psychological community. Because of this, its mainstream presence clashes with the interests of mental and developmental health care professionals. One cannot receive an official diagnosis of savant syndrome because of this, rendering it an inadequate comparison to autism and its related disorders.

Second, savant syndrome only describes one possible element of autism. The two terms cannot be used interchangeably as, if anything, savant syndrome can be perceived as merely a possible symptom of the much broader autism more than anything else. Traditionally, savants display genius or near-genius levels of proficiency in one area – usually a creative or scientific pursuit – and extremely lackluster performances in all others. Occasionally, they perform so poorly in some areas that tests may register them as mentally retarded in spite of their brilliance in a different field. This discrepancy led to the archaic and highly politically incorrect term “idiot savant” to highlight their seemingly dual intellectual levels. The traditional definition of savant does factor into autism in some instances, although the gap manifests itself in a considerably more narrowed manner. Autistics may excel in one or two academic specialties at the expense of others, but the divide is generally more comparable to an average student who passes several related classes with A’s but receives D’s in those they struggle against – usually not the expansive, extreme gulf between genius and mental retardation. As always, depending on the severity of the case this statement may not apply. However, even if an autistic individual did straddle the divide more commonly attributed to those with savant syndrome, a number of other factors must be present in order to acquire a diagnosis. The two conditions are not synonymous with one another, though they share the occasional overlap.

5. All autistic people are alike.
As with all developmental disorders, considerable shifts in severity are always present from case to case. Because of these differences, developmental psychologists consider autism as a spectrum disorder. Patients fall on the scale from needing constant assistance when it comes to daily life to being able to perfectly function in mainstream society with only the bare minimum of treatment. Some autistics may experience some symptoms with more intensity than others, and some may be lacking one or two altogether.

The DSM-IVTR lists Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (or PDDNOS as related pervasive development disorders. This stratification proves the vast differences that still remain in disorders with very similar symptoms. Autism and Asperger’s stand as the two most common diagnoses, and have already been discussed and contrasted earlier in this article. Rett’s only effects females, as males carrying the gene either pass on in the womb or within two years of birth – a very striking difference in other autism spectrum disorders which are generally diagnosed in boys much more frequently than girls. It is a very serious condition characterized by normal development followed by a period of regression within 6-18 months, autistic behavior, and physical traits such as decelerated head growth and repetitive hand gestures. The very rare Childhood Disintegrative Disorder operates as a sort of infantile dementia, with infants developing normally until a very sudden and unexpected decline in almost every major functional skill – social, emotional, mental, and physical alike. Many children seem to regress while under the influence of auditory or visual hallucinations. PDD-NOS encompasses a number of symptoms that match one of the previous disorders, but lack some of their more obvious and defining elements or genetic requirements. The fact that so many varying conditions comprise the autism spectrum should underscore the true diversity of the disorder.

6. The autistic lack empathy and other feelings.
One of the greatest obstacles that stands in the way of the autistic forming healthy, meaningful relationships is the myth that they somehow cannot feel compassion, empathy, and other emotions necessary for real connections. While one of the requirements for a diagnosis of autism or an ASD involves a difficulty in reading and interpreting emotions based on nonverbal expressions, this does not indicate an inability to feel and process them. Individuals with autism and other related disorders are perfectly capable of forming empathic connections with friends and family, but face down difficulty in being able to express them fully or in a manner easily readable by loved ones. The disconnect lay in finding methods of externalizing the internal, and many autistic become frustrated and anxious when others cannot pick up on their moods. Actual lack of empathy and compassion is categorized as narcissistic personality disorder and factors into the diagnosis of sociopathic behavior – neither of which have anything really to do with autism and ASD.

7. Autism and related disorders are mental illnesses.
In spite of their inclusion in the DSM-IVTR, the autism spectrum disorders are not categorized as mental illnesses. Rather, doctors label them as neurodevelopment disorders due to their disruption of normal cognitive behavior and growth. However, psychotherapy assists greatly in helping the autistic overcome their obstacles and better connect with the people around them. It may not be considered a mental illness, but autism benefits significantly from the efforts of dedicated professional counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists who guide patients to learn how to work with the social and emotional difficulties associated with their disorder.

Although autism in and of itself is not a mental illness, it is not uncommon for psychological disorders to accompany it – which may have initially led to the myth in the first place. Depression, panic, and anxiety issues frequently crop up when autistics become overwhelmed by their struggles in forming relationships with their loved ones and frequent feelings of being misunderstood and marginalized. Individuals with Asperger’s sometimes grapple with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which shares many of the same diagnostic criteria. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder may also present itself in individuals with autism as well

8. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders lack social skills and a desire to interact with others.
Much like the myth that the autistic fail to comprehend and express basic emotions, compassion, and empathy, the belief that they amble through life completely without social skills and saddled with antisocial preferences interprets the external without considering the internal. Individuals with autism and ASD do not voluntarily reject social interaction, nor do they inherently lack the desire to connect with friends and family. As with their struggles against expressing emotions, autistics do face extreme difficulty in processing and functioning in social situations – it is one of the main diagnostic criteria, after all. However, this does not indicate an inherent absence of social capabilities. Many of them harbor a yearning to form meaningful and healthy connections on the inside but face extreme difficulty in externalizing it. With proper therapy, it is entirely possible for them to learn how to work with these setbacks and live a happy, healthy life with their friends and family.

9. Poor parenting leads to autism.

Because of autism’s status as a neurodevelopmental disorder, many wrongfully assume that inadequate parenting skills are to blame for their child’s disruptive growth. While developmental psychologists and others in the medical community continue to debate the true origins of autism, at no point does parental involvement factor into the equation. The most likely cause of autism and related disorders is biological and genetic in nature – elements that the parents have absolutely no control over. Studies of the autistic brain have revealed implications in the structure of the brain stem, cerebellum, basal ganglia, cerebral cortex, corpus callosum, and limbic system, suggesting that the developmental setbacks result from compensating from these compromises by utilizing different areas of the brain for basic functions than the usual. Current studies are under way to track any possible correlations between autism and brain chemistry, specifically dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine levels. Still other research posits that vaccines with the mercury-based preservative thimerosal may be responsible for the rise of autism in recent years. No matter what science eventually reveals as the real root cause – or causes – of autism and autism spectrum disorders, the possibility of poor involvement on the part of the parents never even comes into play.

10. Autism and related disorders just get worse over time.
With proper medication and therapy, children and adults with autism can actually improve their functionality and ability to communicate and form meaningful connections with friends and family. Though some of the autism spectrum disorders – such as childhood disintegrative disorder especially – involve a period of regression, at some point the decline levels off instead as opposed to growing progressively worse until the patient ends up in a vegetative state. On the whole, though, autism and autism spectrum disorders are not inherently degenerative conditions. In fact, some patients have been known to slough off the symptoms of autism altogether with the right combination of medications and psychological guidance. Usually this “cure” occurs in the transition from childhood to adulthood, though many still carry the disorder throughout the span of their lives.

Although many of the realities behind autism remain obscured, enough scientific research exists to dispute the misunderstandings or outright falsehoods that prevail regarding the disorder. With straight facts and compelling evidence, humanity can further delve into the condition’s depths and learn about what it is by educating itself on what it is not. If society continues to stick by its misconceptions, then thousands of children and adults may not receive the proper medication and therapy regimen they need in order to remain content and capable of forming healthy, happy, productive, and – most importantly – loving relationships with their family and friends.

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on 12/15/09 in Autism, featured | 3 Comments | Read More

Comments (3)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Hi Jennifer — thanks for the reprint. In keeping with the broad perspective I like to promote, I would suggest an eleventh myth, “All autistic people are readily recognizable as such, and in need of professional help with their autism at some point in their lives.” I’ve been reading Tyler Cowen’s somewhat misleadingly-titled Create Your Own Economy, and am finding much support there for this point of view.

  2. Losing my job has wrecked my confidence and I need some help to relax and stop feeling anxious. Thanks for the site and the information as it is helpful to see what I could do. I will return soon. Keep up the good work.

  3. Zoe Kirk says:

    I might note a few other details:
    - Autistic people may not be aversive to ALL physical contact; I personally don’t like it if I’m overstimulated or don’t know the person very well (in which case I prefer that they ask), but other than that, I’ve always loved physical affection, especially hugs.
    - Some autistic people may develop a lack of desire for social interaction, but this is usually a result of frustration with repeated failure.
    - I don’t know if there’s any research on this, but estrogen levels could play a role in the display of autistic behaviors, especially in girls.

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