The Six Most Common Misconceptions about Autism
Recently, I’ve spent quite a bit of time counseling Dads who either suspect their child is autistic or has recently been diagnosed as autistic.
Soooooo many questions…………...some of which I cannot answer.
These Dads are desperate to help their kids in any way they can. They go online and scour the internet, talking to anyone they can – reminding me of my own early experiences.
Sometimes, they even reference posts with misleading information or promise a miracle treatment, often found in discussion forums like Reddit, rarely grounded in facts or science.
I am by no means an expert, but where I can help these desperate Dads is through compassionate listening, as well as dispelling the myths and stereotypes associated with autism --of which there are so many!
As part of my Autism Dadvocacy, below are the top six misconceptions associated with autism. There are several more, but these are the ones that I’ve found to be the most misleading.
I’ve titled these stereotypes in the ways that I “hear them”, from those outside our community:
1). “Oh, I’m familiar with autism. I’ve seen the movies Rainman and Temple Grandin.”
Hollywood has a unique way of portraying a diversity of people as one-dimensional stereotypes. This marginalization is particularly savage to those with autism. Candidly, I want to destroy the movie - Rainman.
Our community is explicit in referring to our children as “on the spectrum”, since there are so many different manifestations of how ASD shows itself in our kids. My favorite quote (to this day! -it never grows old) is that “when you’ve met one child on the spectrum, you’ve met one child on the spectrum”.
Hollywood depicts those with autism as looking a certain way………or behaving a certain way. One of my favorite stories I’ve shared with other Dads was when an old friend visited my house and met my family. We hadn't seen each other in a very long time --- not since we’d both had kids.
Hugging me goodbye, he had both hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said “your family is wonderful. And your son, your son is amazing. He doesn’t even look autistic!”
2). “People with autism don’t feel empathy” –
There is also a misperception that children with autism have blank, emotionless faces. Moreover, that they are incapable of “reading” emotions in others, which is why they are so challenged in social interactions.
While this may be true of some with ASD, it is not true for the overall population. When I think of my own son, he is incredible expressive, typically smiling, pleasant, and talkative. But what impresses me the most is how actively he reacts to emotions in others:
“Daddy, you look tired…….”
“Daddy, you look irritated……”
His ability to recognize and “call out’ the emotions in others is inspiring for me. Though I see these emotions in others (with my neurotypical brain), I rarely call them out. I see this as a higher and more assertive form of emotional intelligence.
3). “Autism can be “cured” and is probably caused by vaccinations, bad diets, ineffective early diagnoses, and bad parents”
Man, this one is tough……
Autism cannot be cured, nor should it be…..
It just is….
We would not cure left-handedness, or redheadness. We do not cure autism, it just is…..
It is not caused by vaccinations. This is a pervasive myth around the internet. Typically, most children exhibit autistic behaviors around the same as when they are receiving vaccinations. Therefore, some parents conclude that there must be connection. There isn’t. It’s merely coincidental timing.
What truly keeps me up at night are the dubious claims of “cures”…..
On fringe elements, there are those claiming that bleach or paint thinner can purge the autism out of a child. This medieval and nightmarish practice must stop.
As far as diets are concerned, they don’t cure autism. However, they can be effective with any co-morbidities a child may display. For example, if a non-verbal ASD child is lactose intolerant, they may have repeated meltdowns due to the pain they are suffering from dairy. Therefore, in some cases, it may make sense for parents to see how a diet impacts their child’s behavior.
What complicates this is that many ASD children are very particular about the food they eat. Therefore, it is not easy for parents to experiment with new diets, like a lactose or casein free diet
Lastly, there are some that claim that early diagnose and intervention can “cure” an ASD child.
To be firm, those impacted by autism are never cured, though they may benefit from early therapies that allow them to behave in a more neurotypical fashion.
4). “You could be normal if you tried harder”
……………Would we chastise a child with epilepsy if they had a seizure?
……………Would we chastise a child with diabetes if their blood sugar spiked?
……………Then why do we chastise autistic children for sensory meltdowns? Or their stimming?
Yes, many of those with autism benefit from coaching. But we need to steer away from this dangerous myth that they’re “not trying hard enough”. This heavy pressure can lead to a phenomena known as “masking”, where those with autism pretend to be someone they’re not. This masking can lead to depression and anxiety and is particularly pervasive with girls on the spectrum.
5). “Autistic People are good at math” “They’re savants…”
As the father of an ASD child, it’s interesting to me that there are people who think that those with autism are X-Men. They have some hidden mutant superpower.
10% of those on the spectrum do exhibit a unique savant-like ability, such as photographic memorization, an ability to recall & recreate images with stunning precision, or advanced math skills.
But what about the remaining 90%? They are as diverse in their unique talents like their neurotypical classmates.
As an aside, my son is truly gifted in math. I see a bright future in some STEM field for him, like biomedical engineering or data analytics. No doubt, he’ll be a very useful member to society (unlike his Dad). However, I attribute his mathematical talents to a true passion and hunger for learning in this field, not some X-Men genetic gift in his brain.
6). “Autistic people are difficult to employ”
90% of those who have ASD are either unemployed or underemployed. This is due to a sub-set of misperceptions of those with ASD in the workplace
They can only do certain kinds of work, e.g. IT coding
They are pushed into service level jobs, even when their education makes them a better fit for more skilled jobs
They have poor social and communication skills, making it hard for them to be team players
They are inflexible and change resistant
It’s cost prohibitive to employ those with ASD. It’s “too much work” for their supervisor.
Fundamentally, it’s not autism that need to change, it’s workplace culture…….
Those with autism face segregating, bullying, misunderstanding, discrimination, exploitation, and inflexible work environments.
The next frontier for Autism Dadvocate will be workforce initiatives around ASD adolescents. There’s a lot of great work in our community already underway. More exciting things to come……stay tuned! The future looks bright.