Autism is widely known yet it is not widely understood. Awareness of the condition has grown in recent years and there have been many milestones in actively including and promoting autistic people’s participation within wider society. Myths and misconception still exist however and it is important that we tackle these whenever we see and hear them. We’ve made a list of the most common stereotypes here and set the record straight.
“YOU DON’T LOOK AUTISTIC”
Autism is known as an ‘invisible disability.’ It displays no physical signs and doesn’t require specific medication to help those diagnosed with it. No one can ever ‘look’ autistic.
AUTISTIC PEOPLE CAN’T EMAPTHISE
This is one of the most persistent stereotypes about autistic people. It’s certainly true that many on the spectrum don’t show their emotions the way most people without the condition might recognise. It’s also true that some individuals do prefer their own company to spending it with a group. The notion that autistic people are totally incapable of relating to other people, however, is simply untrue.
We all feel empathy to different degrees in different circumstances. The empathy we might feel for a friend failing an important exam is very different to the kind we would at a funeral. Autistic people are much the same, able to experience the same emotions to the varying levels as anyone else. In fact, one American study found that the autistic individuals they interviewed experienced typical, even intense empathy.
Trouble with social communication and imaginative skills can complicate their understanding of a situation, sometimes leading to behaviour that might seem wholly inappropriate. Pursuit of intense interests may also give off the impression that the person is disinterested and only wants to talk about themselves.
ONLY BOYS ARE DIAGNOSED WITH AUTISM
More boys and men are diagnosed with autism than girls and women. Various studies, together with anecdotal evidence according to the National Autistic Society, have come up with men/women ratios ranging from 2:1 to 16:1. Yet the idea that autism is a condition which males are more ‘susceptible’ to has been increasingly challenged in recent years as our understanding has grown.
Many of the children participating in Han’s Asperger’s original studies of autism were boys. Hans Asperger himself even said that he did not believe that autism could ever affect females (later changing his mind). The diagnostic criteria since then has been developed largely around examining and assessing a male brain. Today’s criteria of autism’s defining traits, which are often especially overt in boys and men, has meant that many girls and women on the spectrum have fallen through the cracks during the diagnostic process.
YOU CAN’T COMMUNICATE WITH NON-VERBAL PEOPLE ON THE SPECTRUM
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.
MELTDOWNS ARE EXCUSES FOR TEMPER TANTRUMS
Major anxiety and overstimulation can overwhelm autistic people. 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 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.