Autism Spectrum Disorder: myths and facts
By Jenny Demark
April is Autism Awareness month. This is an opportunity to celebrate and talk about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and to work towards building an inclusive society where all people can reach their potential.
Many people are confused about ASD – what it is, what causes it, and how to help those who have it. And rightfully so. As with all things these days there is an abundance of misinformation circulating on the internet. So if you are interested in learning more about ASD, check out these common myths and the actual facts.
MYTH: People with ASD are all the same.
FACT: Of course not. If you have met one person with ASD, well then you have met one person with ASD. Like everybody, people with ASD all have their unique personalities, strengths and weaknesses.
MYTH: ASD is rare.
FACT: ASD is becoming more and more common. In the United States, one in 68 children are diagnosed with ASD. Boys tend to receive the diagnosis about four times as often as girls, but awareness of the unique features of ASD in girls is growing.
MYTH: ASD is a mental health disorder.
FACT: ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. But, people with ASD are about twice as likely as people in the general population to develop mental health issues (such as anxiety or depression) that require treatment.
MYTH: ASD is caused by vaccines, poor parenting, food additives, wifi, or… (insert various unfounded claims here).
FACT: ASD is caused by a complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors. There is absolutely no evidence that vaccines, diets, electromagnetic radiation, or so-called “refrigerator mothers” cause ASD.
MYTH: People with ASD act in violent and unpredictable ways.
FACT: Some people with ASD, but certainly not all, do resort to aggression. Understanding this behaviour as an attempt to communicate (“I’m scared”, “I’m confused”, “I can’t do what you are asking me to”, “I need more time”, etc.) is the first step toward teaching healthier coping skills.
MYTH: People with ASD lack empathy.
FACT: Many people with ASD love and care deeply about other people or animals. They may not show it in typical ways.
MYTH: All people with ASD have intellectual delays.
FACT: Many people with ASD (research suggests up to 75 per cent) do have developmental, intellectual or language delays. However, other people with ASD have average or above average intellectual ability.
MYTH: All people with ASD have “savant” abilities.
FACT: All people have strengths and weaknesses. Less than 10 per cent of people with ASD have true savant skills, which are very specific skills that are well beyond a typical way of thinking. Examples of savant skills include being able to calculate the day of the week for any date in history; memorizing all countries and their capitals in alphabetical order; knowing pi to the 100,000th digit; recalling train schedules across the country, etc. Unlike the depiction of autism in the classic movie Rain Man, most people with ASD do not have these kinds of skills.
MYTH: ASD can and should be cured.
FACT: There is no known “cure” for ASD, but early intervention can promote success, reduce problematic behaviours and increase independence. Outcomes for people with ASD are highly variable, with some people living independently and productively and others needing substantial support during their lifetime.
MYTH: People with ASD should be forced to change.
FACT: Obviously not. As a society we can find the balance between accepting and understanding neurodiversity along with the goal of helping people with ASD to fulfill their potential.
MYTH: All quirky kids have ASD.
FACT: Absolutely not. ASD is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that causes significant impairment to social communication and social interactions. It also involves repetitive or restricted behaviours or interests that result in substantial difficulties in functioning day-to-day.
MYTH: ASD can be self-diagnosed.
FACT: A diagnosis of ASD comes from experienced professionals in the fields of psychology or medicine. If you suspect that someone you know has ASD, seek a thorough assessment from a competent professional.
If you are interested in learning more about ASD, or would like to help support people in our community, check out these websites:
Jenny Demark, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a psychologist who lives in the Glebe and works nearby.