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There’s More to Autism Than These Myths

Autism needs no introduction. It’s no longer a condition that elicits blank stares and empty looks. After all most of us know of someone, even if it’s just that child from TV, with autism. And so whenever the topic is broached, we simply shake our heads and give a sympathetic and all-knowing look because we understand. Or at least we think we do. The reality, however, is a little different.

Child with autism playing with a toy

What many don’t realise is that there are still so many misconceptions and myths about autism and its history. This misinformation is often accepted at face value and enshrined as fact, clouding our understanding of autism and the people impacted by this condition. So how much do we really understand about autism?

Autism is probably one of the most misunderstood conditions around which is why we need to confront myths and misconceptions head-on. That’s the only way those with autism will be understood and accepted for who they are.

Here are some of the main myths about autism:

1. Myth: Autism is on the rise

One of the most frightening and often-quoted stats about autism is that the condition now affects 1 in 68 children; up from 1 in 10,000 in 1970. While this may be accurate it doesn’t tell the full story. This dramatic spike is largely due to changes in how the condition is diagnosed, and has nothing to do with with condition becoming more prevalent. Up until recently, the idea of being on the spectrum didn’t exist. The condition was narrowly defined and was thought to be very rare. This meant that unless a child presented all of the core behaviors originally associated with autism, they wouldn’t be diagnosed.

Another factor which could also help explain the sudden increase in autism diagnoses is that doctors may be swapping one condition for another. Paul Shattuck, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that while rates of autism increased from 1994 to 2003, diagnosis of mental retardation and learning problems decreased. Shattuck’s conclusion is that it’s possible that autism only seems like it’s on the rise because of diagnostic substitution.

2. Myth: Autism affects more boys than girls

It’s estimated that for every girl diagnosed with autism, there are approximately four boys with the condition. But it seems that this difference may be the result of how the condition is perceived, assessed and diagnosed rather than actual gender differences. Autism tends to present differently in girls and boys. Often the symptoms are more subtle and can be more difficult to diagnose in girls. As a result, a girl with autism is more likely to be misdiagnosed as having a learning problem such as ADHD or a behavioral problem.

A little girl with autism smiles

It’s also important to note that almost all the diagnostic criteria used to make an autism diagnosis are based on research of boys. This creates a diagnostic bias and means that the onus is on doctors to suss out autism in girls. However because there is little understanding of how the condition manifests in girls, it often gets overlooked. Girls also tend to be better at masking their autism which makes getting an accurate diagnosis even more challenging.

3. Myth: Autism is caused by vaccinations

It’s not uncommon to hear activists and concerned parents alike make the link between autism and vaccinations. This is in large part due to research conducted by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 which tried to find a connection between the MMR vaccination and autism. While this research quickly gained popularity and resulted in a drop in vaccination rates, it has since been retracted by Lancet, the medical journal, which published it. Lancet concluded that several findings in the paper were incorrect and inconclusive in establishing a causal link between the MMR vaccination and autism.

In addition, Wakefield and his team were found guilty of fraud in that not only did they pick and choose their data but they falsified facts. It was also found that the research was funded by lawyers who were representing parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies. Despite this, there are still many in the autism community who continue to perpetuate the harmful idea that vaccinations cause autism.

As a result of this and the anti-vaccination movement, we’re seeing an increase in outbreaks of contagious diseases which were considered neutralised by the WHO. In 2015, for example, there were 59 reported cases of measles reported in the U.S. of which 42 were linked to unvaccinated groups of children at Disneyland.

4. Myth: Mothers are to blame for autism

One of the most hurtful and damaging myths about autism is the idea that autism is caused by mothers who fail to love and nurture their babies. This idea was suggested in the 1950s by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner who blamed helpless parents for their child’s condition.

A mother holding her baby

Kanner used the term “refrigerator mother” for these parents who were described as being distant and cold. While this theory has long since been disproved, it’s a reminder of why it’s important to confront and correct autism myths.

5. Myth: People with autism lack empathy

It’s not uncommon to see depictions of people with autism as unfeeling and unsympathetic. Many of these portrayals even go so far as to suggest that those with autism are not that different to sociopaths. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, people with autism tend to be very empathetic and are often worried about those around them. The problem is that they don’t always know how to show or express this concern. This coupled with the fact that many with autism struggle reading social cues, can make it seem like they’re indifferent and unsympathetic. It’s damaging and flawed thinking like this that has created the idea of the “autistic shooter”.

There are many myths and misconceptions about autism which need to be challenged and debunked. The problem is that some of these myths have become such an integral part of the autism narrative that many mistake them for fact. All we can do is keep an open mind, and understand that life with autism looks a little different. You’ll probably find that deep down, people with autism aren’t that different from you or me. Have you encountered any autism myths that challenged the way you perceived the condition? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

AngelSense is committed to creating a safer world for children with special needs. We designed the AngelSense GPS tracking Device to give parents the peace of mind that their child is safe at all times.

AngelSense is committed to creating a safer world for those with special needs and providing peace of mind to their families.

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