When we are talking about autism it is as important to know what is NOT TRUE, as what IS TRUE about the condition. In this section we will go through some Autism mythbusters
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:
Many concerned parents have asked ‘do parents cause autism?’ People are born with autism, therefore their upbringing cannot cause the condition. A horrible old theory (ironically put forward by Leo Kanner, credited with discovering the condition) 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 This outdated theory has been proven to have no basis in fact and comes from a time where people who were different were seen as something negative in society and something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.
‘What causes autism?’ is a very complicated question. Therefore 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.
Since differences in social interaction is a primary feature of the condition, many may ask ‘can autistic people socialise?’ While autistic people often find social situations very difficult or stressful, 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.
It’s important to remember that autism is a condition which exists on a spectrum. The DSMV pinpoints differences in communication and repetitive behaviours as something all autistic people have in common. Beyond these two traits, if you find yourself asking ‘do all autistic people do this?’ The answer is probably no. As Dr. Stephen Shore says, 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. Major anxiety and overstimulation can overwhelm autistic people resulting in a meltdown. A meltdown is a response to overwhelming situations where too much stimuli will overload a person’s brain. They will temporarily lose control of their behaviour and often become emotional. This loss of control can be expressed verbally (eg shouting, screaming, crying), physically (eg kicking, lashing out, biting) or in both ways. This is too often confused as a “temper tantrum” or bad behaviour by those who do not understand autism. Asking ‘are autistic people aggressive?’ often comes from looking at an autistic person’s distress on a surface level. 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. This behaviour, especially in younger children, is often mistaken for their throwing a tantrum. What the difference between the two is that you can stop a tantrum, but you can’t with a meltdown; only mitigate and redirect its focus. A person experiencing a meltdown needs to physically vent the stress their brain has experienced for them to recover. 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!
For a long time autism was understood through the medical model in terms of deficits. As a result, “Does autism have a cure?” is a common question. 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 Behavioural 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 behavioural 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.
‘Can girls be autistic’ is an understandable question. This is based on 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. It’s also possible that gender bias plays a role.
Debate and research continues on whether more boys are autistic or if simply fewer girls are diagnosed.
‘Do autistic people have empathy?’ is a common question. Firstly, 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 a few suggestions for this.
One suggestion is that there are different types of empathy: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy means being identifying cues which allow us to understand another person’s feelings and predict how they will react. Affective or emotional empathy is how we react to someone else’s emotional state. Given that autistic people do react to other’s emotions and empathise with them, some have suggested that autism means difficulty in cognitive empathy which leads to the false conclusion that they lack emotional empathy.
It’s also important to remember empathy is a two-way interaction. Non-autistic people struggle to understand the emotions of autistic people just as much as the other way round. The difficulty may lie in how people with different ways of experiencing the world interact. This is known as the Double Empathy Problem.
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. When we ask ‘are autistic people genius?’ we should remember Einstein’s wise words “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.
While autistic people, like anyone else, can commit crimes, there is nothing inherent in the condition that lends itself to criminal behaviour. In fact, autistic people are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of crime. Asking ‘are autistic people dangerous?’ usually results from isolated cases.. 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 to 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. However, this is largely due to difficulties in detecting changes in tone, or facial expression. 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. In fact, several famous comedians such as Dan Aykroyd, Fern Brady, Hannah Gadsby, Jim Jefferies and Aoife Dooley are autistic. Any doubts, watch our video below!
‘What does an autistic person look like?’ is a question that doesn’t acknowledge autism is invisible. It doesn’t have a shape, size or colour. 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. When we ask ‘can autistic people communicate? it’s equally important to realize 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!
Many autistic people are visual thinkers and respond well to signs and images when interacting with others. Those who don’t use speech to communicate make use of a number of different strategies, such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) and Lámh.
Modern technology has created further opportunities for non-verbal people to express themselves and enable them to take part in day-to-day life. These include artificial speakers on mobile devices which communicate words and sentences when users indicate icons onscreen.
Aside from more formal alternative communication systems, autistic people may draw, type or gesture. Often those closest to an autistic person will understand their needs better than anyone, yet with time and patience, it’s also possible for strangers to work out what a non-verbal person is trying to say with their own means of communication.
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!