In short, there has always been a tension between individual uniqueness and collective commonalities within the history of autism.
Pervasive Myths about Autism
More than one percent of all American children have autism. That is no myth. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one out of every 68 children that year were diagnosed with autism. That is over two times the number of children that were diagnosed eight years earlier.
What we do not know is whether the increased numbers are a result of more public awareness, and thus more people are seeking a diagnosis, or whether the numbers reflect a rising prevalence of the condition.
Regardless of which scenario is the case, it is hard to combat many myths that have arisen alongside the increased public awareness of autistic spectrum disorder. Often the media’s portrayal of autistic individuals gives people a skewed perspective on autism. On one hand, it is good that the public has an increased awareness of autism. Yet on the other hand, the public needs to be able to separate fact from fiction so they can make more informed decisions about public policy and in their relationships with people affected by autism. Here are some of the many misconceptions about autism:
People with Autism Are All the Same
People without autism are not all alike. Even close relatives, such as identical twins, can be astonishingly different in their beliefs, attitudes, and outlook on life. Just as no two people who have diabetes are the same, no two people with autism are affected in the same way by their condition.
Autism, like many neurological disorders, is on a wide and varied spectrum. Some people with autism talk enthusiastically with others, particularly about areas in which they have a keen interest. Others are completely nonverbal. Some may sing or rock to quiet themselves. Others have hypersensitivities to physical touch.
Many people with autism have difficulty deciphering social cues. Often that difficulty causes them to have an emotional barrier between themselves and others that takes time and patience to cross. Although it may take an extra effort to get to know someone with autism, the effort will prove well-worth the challenge.
People with Autism are Savants
This myth, fueled by human interest stories by well-meaning journalists about children with autism who are prodigies in various fields, causes the uninformed public to characterize all people with autism as savants. That is not at all the case. Only a few individuals on the autistic spectrum have talents in the arts or sciences that would characterize them as savants.
People with Autism Have Violent Tendencies
This misconception causes a lot of unwarranted fear on the part of people who are ignorant about autism. It is more the fear of the unknown that causes people to believe such patent nonsense. If people see a person with autism overreacting when her or his personal space is violated, they may believe that the person is violent. They are not. They simply are trying to communicate their discomfort in the best way they are able.
On the other hand, misinformed people fear nonverbal autistic people out of another pervasive myth, “it’s always the shy ones.” The facts say otherwise. Violent tendencies in people with autism are no more pervasive than in any other group of people.
People with Autism Have a Mental Disability
People with autism have a neurological disorder. It is a disorder that is caused by abnormalities in the structure of the person’s brain. There is no direct correlation with intellectual disabilities. Although many people with autism have a difficult time communicating through language and social cues, it is no indication that they are unable to process complex concepts. In fact, many people with autism perform above average in tests of intellectual ability, once they have accommodations that compensate for their difficulty in communication.
People with Autism Cannot Have Long-Term Relationships or Careers
Many screenwriters portray autistic people as having no feelings for others. Although many people with autism have great difficulty expressing their feelings in a socially acceptable way, that by no means indicates that they do not have empathy with others. Many individuals with autism have formed close bonds with others, have fallen in love, have gotten married, and have raised families. Many people with autism have had successful careers in fields for which they have a genuine passion, provided they have a work environment in which it they can thrive.
“One common misconception often associated with people with autism is that if they struggle with mind blindness, they also lack empathy. However, dealing with Theory of Mind issues [the ability to recognize and understand the thoughts and feelings of others] does not mean that an individual lacks empathy. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Theory of Mind (ToM) deficits help explain why people with autism sometimes find it difficult to respond appropriately in social situations. What appears as uncaring behavior at first glance may be a simple lack of understanding.”