Just over 40 years ago, autism was first recognised as a distinct diagnosis in the DSM-III. Since then, awareness of autism has become widespread among the public, and thankfully, most of this has been respectful and positive.
Unfortunately, there have also been unscientific myths about autism that exploit some people’s confusion and anxiety. These contribute to negative stigma and make it harder for autistic people to truly be understood and flourish in society. Have you fallen prey to any of these myths? Here are the most common myths about autism:
“The autism epidemic”
There’s a strange misconception about a so-called autism epidemic. Over the years, awareness of autism has increased dramatically among health professionals, authorities, schools, parents, and the media.
Autistic children who were previously overlooked are now getting correctly diagnosed, leading to growing estimates of the autistic population. Initially, one in 150 US children was estimated to be on the autism spectrum. But now, the estimate is one in 59, which is closer to reality.
An anxious mind without a full understanding might see this increase and jump to the illogical conclusion that something is spreading. But the only thing that’s spreading is knowledge. There’s an epidemic of awareness, recognition, respect, and support for autistic individuals. And that’s nothing to be anxious about.
“It can be impacted by parenting styles”
In 1967, school director Bruno Bettelheim was interested in the social isolation of his autistic pupils and made a bizarre comparison with the emotional detachment he witnessed when he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.
These two situations are light years apart and people can be socially isolated for many different reasons. However, Bettelheim was convinced of his baseless idea and wrote a book suggesting that a lack of affection created autism itself.
This suggestion had absolutely no evidence, but some families who were confused or anxious about an autism diagnosis found it natural to latch onto a false explanation that had easy blame attached.
Now that we know more about the causes of autism, we can safely say that this is a myth. The scientific reality is that autism comes from a variety of genetic and prenatal factors. Parents of autistic children are already under a lot of pressure to do the right thing, and they don’t need extra stigma on top of that.
“It can be caused by vaccines”
In the late 1990s, a personal injury lawyer pursuing a case against a vaccine manufacturer funded a fraudulent study to discredit the vaccine. This study was led by Andrew Wakefield, who fabricated medical histories for some children who had received the vaccine mentioned in the lawsuit.
In reality, most of the children had autistic symptoms at a completely different time from the vaccination, and some of them didn’t even have autism at all. But Wakefield manipulated or completely invented their medical histories to suggest a false connection between autism symptoms and the vaccine.
Some parents of autistic children then fell prey to confusing correlation with causation. Autistic symptoms usually become noticeable in childhood and vaccination is also common in childhood. Parents who already had the idea in their minds falsely assumed causation between the two events, just because they happened at a similar time when it was actually a coincidence and would have happened anyway.
Over the past 20 years, every researcher around the world who has investigated rates of autism has found no difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated children.
There’s not a single study to back up the myth other than Wakefield’s original study. Which was investigated by the UK’s General Medical Council and declared to be fraudulent and retracted.
“It can be ‘fixed’”
Autistic traits like hyperfocus, attention to detail, and unique perspective are benefits to nurture. Unfortunately, some have a misguided focus on only the difficulties and misunderstand medical terms like cause, symptom, and support. This flawed framing has sometimes led to an inappropriate borrowing of the term cure, but there’s nothing to cure.
Families experiencing stress when raising autistic children can latch on to false hopes. The nature of autism is a permanently different structural wiring of the brain that couldn’t and shouldn’t be eliminated.
The lives of autistic people are definitely filled with challenges. But this is caused by a lack of genuine understanding and support for autistic traits, not necessarily the traits themselves.
So there you have it, the most common myths about autism. The next time you see a claim about autism. Pause for a second and reflect on whether it might be a misconception before deciding to accept it or not. Even better, share this article to help spread correct and respectful knowledge about autism in society.