Dispelling the Myths about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

By Shannon Borch
Clinical Supervisor, School Support Program, Kinark Child and Family Services

Autism is an increasingly recognized label in society today and despite the tidal wave of awareness, myths remain around this complex diagnosis. These myths can lead to misconceptions and stigma, which can create barriers to inclusion for those affected and their families. Only through sharing our experiences and education can we dispel these myths and help society understand ASD more clearly.

In popular culture, there has been limited representation of people on the autism spectrum or with similar profiles, and this tends to lead to over-generalizations. We can call it the Rainman effect or, in more recent examples, the Sheldon Cooper or the Mr. Robot effect. No matter whom the symbol, the general population tends to assume that one example is representative of the whole ASD population. For example, we might assume all individuals on the spectrum must have savant (or extraordinary) abilities. In reality, we know individuals with autism possess unique strengths and challenges, and while special areas of interest may lead to impressive skills and talents, not all individuals on the spectrum will have extreme skills or talents.

The truth is, if you’ve met one person with autism, you have only met one person with autism.

The facts about ASD can also be commonly misunderstood. With the skyrocketing rates of ASD being diagnosed in recent years, it has led many to believe we are in an epidemic of sorts. While the increased numbers are a proven fact, the increase in cases diagnosed does not necessary mirror an increase in people affected.  Instead, the increased number of people being diagnosed is impacted by increased awareness of ASD by parents and doctors. This is also increased because of the broadened criteria by which ASD is diagnosed, and the availability of proven and funded treatment options. In other words, we are looking for it more closely, recognizing more subtle forms of ASD, and have reasons to seek a diagnosis.

Beyond that concern, many have looked for explanations for the increasing number of those diagnosed with ASD. Could it be the result of environmental pollutants? Or perhaps a side effect of vaccinations? While it is natural to want to understand the reason for this change, the truth is probably not so dramatic.  In reality, no single environmental factor has been shown to cause ASD. While the cause is unknown, it is probably a complex interaction of factors including genetics, brain development, and possible environmental exposure. The myth about vaccines causing autism is particularly widespread and especially dangerous given the significant medical risks associated with forsaking vaccines, particularly for the most vulnerable among us.

The very features used to diagnose autism can be subject to misconceptions as well. One of the two characteristics used to diagnose ASD is an impairment in social communication and interactions. This is often oversimplified to mean a lack of interest in others and an inability to communicate. However, this apparent social disinterest may actually be the result of a lack of skills to effectively interact with others. Furthermore, a history of social attempts being unsuccessful, or even being punished by ridicule, can lead to a tendency to avoid these situations.

In terms of communication, many individuals on the spectrum have means to communicate that differ from the spoken language most of us use. The emergence of affordable technology (e.g., iPad®) has given a voice to many non-verbal individuals and, alongside picture systems, sign language and even behaviours, have allowed them a way to communicate their wants and needs. It is ironic that a feature used to diagnose autism is an insistence on sameness, but isn’t that essentially what we, as a society are doing when we refuse to acknowledge alternate ways to communicate and interact, simply because they differ from our own?

The second feature used to diagnose autism is the presence of restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, commonly referred to as self-stimulatory behaviours (or simply stims). It is not, as some might believe, the presence of challenging (or problem) behaviours. In fact, challenging behaviours often associated with autism (e.g., self-injury, aggression) are instead thought to be a secondary characteristic. That is, they are thought to be a result of social and communication challenges. Consider if your means of communication was not understood by others and you found it difficult to interact with them. You too might find yourself displaying some challenging behaviours… I know I would.

Finally, the simple fact that we use what amounts to a checklist of impairments in order to diagnose autism, leads many to assume these challenges define individuals with autism. Even the language we use when we say things like suffers from autism supports this challenge-focused viewpoint.

But, despite this tendency, those who have interacted with individuals on the spectrum know there is a lot more to them than just their challenges. They also exhibit countless strengths and provide a unique, refreshing, and often candid view of the world. Once we see the person beyond the myths and preconceived notions, we can come to appreciate and celebrate this remarkable population.

In summary,

Myth Reality
If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met them all! All individuals with autism are unique in their strengths and needs. If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met ONE person with autism!
Autism is an epidemic! Autism is diagnosed more often now than in the past.
Autism is caused by _________ (fill in the blank). There is no single known cause of autism.
People with autism are not interested in others. An apparent lack of interest may actually be a lack of skill or lack of support for their social attempts.
People with autism cannot communicate. You don’t need to have speech to have language. Language can consist of signs, augmentative devices, pictures, gestures, etc.
Problem behaviour is a diagnostic feature of autism. Challenging behaviours are often a secondary characteristic of autism.
People with autism are defined by their impairments. Individuals with autism have many strengths and are not defined by any one feature.