When we are talking about autism it is as important to know what is NOT TRUE, as what IS TRUE about the condition.
While autism awareness has greatly grown in Ireland in recent years, we are still a long way from having a society which truly understands autism. While many people have heard the word or even know someone with the condition, many people still cannot explain what autism is or understand the way autistic people think.
As a result, when we do not give people the information they need often mistruths, rumours and nonsense can fill the vacuum.
Here we want to highlight some common misconception about autism and separate the fact from the fiction:
People are born with autism, therefore their upbringing cannot cause the condition. A horrible old theory tried to place the “blame” for autism on parents. This theory tried to point the finger at either “refrigerator parents” (cold, distant parents) or simply “fussing” over-attentive parents as being somehow responsible for their child’s condition. This outdated theory has been proven to have no basis in fact and comes from a time where people who were different were seen as something negative in society and something which someone had to take responsibility for. This myth is extremely unaligned with the current advocacy for autism because it adds to the stigma around autism and it can cause unnecessary strife for parents and family members who genuinely strive to understand and assist their autistic child.
Any sentence which starts like this should immediately be questioned. We simply do not yet know the definitive cause of autism. We do know that the condition has a genetic component and there are many other theories and possible factors out there. However, there is no definitive answer to what causes autism and anyone who tries to point to any single factor or cause is not speaking from a scientific, research informed perspective.
Autistic people often find social situations very difficult or stressful but this does not mean that a person doesn’t want to socialise. Nor does it mean that some autistic people are not very outgoing or enjoy socialising. Just because a person finds something challenging or does something in a different way, does not mean that they don’t interact with other people or have friends. Autistic people must make a huge effort every single day to interact with other people. It is important for neurotypical people to try and meet autistic people half way to make social situations less stressful.
If you have met one autistic people, you have met one autistic person. No people have exactly the same challenges or strengths. It is important to avoid stereotyping or “box ticking” when talking to an autistic person – realise everyone is different and meet the person where they are at.
As autism is an invisible condition, too often people can be quick to pass judgement and make assumptions instead of being understanding or helpful. Autistic people often communicate differently to those who do not have the condition and can become overwhelmed in certain environments and situations. This is too often confused as a “temper tantrum” or bad behaviour by those who do not understand autism. Many parents tell us about how they can often feel “judged” by others if their child experiences a “meltdown” in a public place. Equally autistic adults behaviour can sometimes be misinterpreted as suspicious or aggressive. Understand that what you see as negative behaviour may be a person really struggling in a very difficult environment or situation – avoid staring and judging and, even when you don’t know if someone is autistic, give people a break. Let’s all be kinder to one another!
Similar to the “caused by” statement, there is no cure for autism. It is a lifelong condition which you are born with. It is a fundamental part of how a person thinks (which brings positives as well as challenges) and many autistic people do not desire to be cured but understood, accepted and supported in reaching their personal potential. Some therapies can support a person in overcoming certain barriers presented by the condition – but they should not be confused with a cure. Listed are a few common therapies that are known to be beneficial for autistic people:
Play Therapy – allows autistic children to grow in areas of self-expression, communication, and social skills in an environment involving playing with toys that the child likes.
Occupational Therapy – helps individuals learn everyday actions or activities such as learning to button a shirt. This therapy can be geared towards a home, school, or work environment.
Speech and Language Therapy – helps individuals learn how to communicate more effectively, whether verbal or nonverbal, and can involve reviewing facial emotions, gestures, or using pictures or symbols to communicate.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – involves thinking about one’s thoughts and what feelings are attached to it. Studies have shown that the use of CBT had decreased levels of anxiety in autistic children as well as improved social skills.
Equine Therapy – an intervention that involves completing activities with a horse such as mounting the horse, grooming the horse, and controlling the horses movement, which can help improve behavioral and social communication skills.
Although there are a number of beneficial therapies for autistic people, there are a few misconceived treatments that are not proven to help autistic people improve their daily functioning:
One can spot fake treatments if they seek to “cure” autism, lack empirical evidence, claim to take a short amount of time for interventions to work, or if it is based on a “miracle”, “faith”, or “trust”. There is no cure for autism and anyone who presents one is promoting an unregulated, unsubstantiated treatment which is likely to be expensive and even potentially dangerous.
A common misconception is that autism is a male-only condition or affects very few girls. While more boys are diagnosed with the condition, lots of girls are too. We also know many girls are better at copying the behaviours of their peers and so potentially conceal the fact that they autistic. As a result often girls are diagnosed later than boys, particularly autistic girls who may have lower levels of support needs, or go undiagnosed. Debate and research continues on whether more boys are autistic or if simply fewer girls are diagnosed.
Autistic people may find it harder to understand or express emotions or to read other people’s emotions however this does not mean that autistic people don’t or cannot empathise with other people.
There are many forms of intelligence and everyone has abilities and talents to offer. We sometimes focus too much on what a person cannot do rather than what they can do, indeed Einstein once said “Everyone is a genius but if we judge a a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life thinking that it is stupid”. Popular media depictions of autism can imply that all autistic people are highly academic and have savant abilities. This is not accurate and can put huge pressure on autistic people. Autistic people have a broad range of academic abilities, never assume a person is or is not capable of something. Get to know a person and find out their strengths!
There can be a presumption that if an autistic is seen to be more “high functioning” or independent in society that they will be happier than those with higher support needs. This is not true. Indeed, research shows there is no correlation between Level 1, 2 or 3 autism and their happiness in life. What is important is the opportunities and attitudes that a person is exposed to. What we really should be discussing is how we can ensure every autistic person is enabled to live a meaningful life, using their abilities and pursuing their own aspirations. There is no one size fits all for success, happiness must be our measure of it.
Autistic people are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of crime. When an autistic person does come into conflict with the law, the media can place a huge emphasis on this. The vast majority of criminals are neurotypical and yet we never hear that description emphasised in newspapers, television or social media!
Every person has abilities, this includes autistic people. Indeed, autistic thinking can bring its own strengths too! We should never presume an autistic person can’t do something but rather talk about how we can empower autistic people to be able to participate. It is important focus on what the person can do – using a person’s strengths and abilities to support them in areas they find more difficult.
Humour, sarcasm and irony can be confusing for autistic people. This does not mean that an autistic person can’t have a sense of humour of their own or can’t learn to understand conventional humour, sarcasm and irony. Any doubts, watch the video below!
Autism is invisible. Autistic people do not necessarily look any different to anyone else. Autism affects people of every age, race, religion, class, ability and disability.
Autistic people who are non-verbal or non-speaking may communicate differently to most people. Equally, autistic people who are verbal may not always be able to articulate their experiences or what they want to say through words. This doesn’t mean that the person can’t communicate – they just do it in a different way! It falls on us all to learn to communicate with people who communicate in different ways!
Our Youth Leadership Team recently put together this fantastic video to bust some common misconceptions which have always got on their nerves – check it out below!