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8 Misconceptions About Autism


Updated November 21, 2013

What is autism?  How does it manifest itself? What should you expect from a child with autism? There are many misconceptions out there -- some of which can undermine your ability to understand, help, or support your child on the spectrum.  Let's get some of those misconceptions out of the way!


1. Misconception 1: Autism Is a Mental Illness

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder which seems to be associated with a variety of risk factors including genetics and certain prenatal exposures.  It is not, however, a mental illness. People with autism are, however, more than usually susceptible to mental illness: many people on the spectrum are ALSO diagnosed with anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or other mental illnesses.

2. Misconception 2: Autism Can Be Prevented

Unless autism is caused (as is very rarely the case) by specific prenatal exposures, it cannot be actively prevented.  And while it is true that autism does "run" in families, most cases of autism can't be traced to heredity.  Autism can't be prevented by a particular type of parenting, education, food, or health choice.


3. Misconception 3: There Is a Known Cure for Autism

There are many treatments for autism. But no treatment, not even the "gold standard" Applied Behavioral Analysis, can "cure" autism.  In addition, while medication can have some positive impact on certain symptoms of autism, there is not (yet, at least) a pill or procedure that actually cures autism or makes its symptoms disappear. If you read or hear of a cure for autism, you are almost certainly being misled.


4. Misconception 4: People with Autism Are All Very Similar

There is a saying, "if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism."  This saying is absolutely correct.  People with autism are as different from one another as they could be, and while there are some behaviors that are "typical" of autism, they are by no means universal.


5. Misconception 5: People with Autism Have No Emotions

To the contrary, many people with autism have a huge range of emotions. In fact, it is not unusual for people with autism to have particularly strong emotions of every kind.  In addition, people with autism can be very empathetic -- once they fully understand what another person is feeling (which can take some explaining!).


6. Misconception 6: People with Autism Are Bright andTalented

This isn't so much a misconception as it is an overstatement.  SOME people with autism are very bright and very talented indeed.  Others are neither bright nor talented.  But because an unusual percentage of people with autism have savant syndrome (extreme ability in one very small area), some folks assume that all autistics are savants.  They are not.


7. Misconception 7: People with Autism Have No Imaginations

I'm not sure where this misconception came from, and it's hard to believe that it still thrives after so much publicity for autistic artists and inventors whose work is sold worldwide.  YES, people with autism do have imaginations -- some more than others, of course. Not every person with autism chooses to show off his or her imagination by painting, acting, inventing, etc., but then again neither do all "typically developing" people!


8. Misconception 8: People with Autism Are Technically Inclined

This is yet another overstatement. YES, there are plenty of people with autism who are absolutely terrific with mechanics and technology.  But at the same time, there are plenty of people with autism who have no interest in anything mechanical or technological, and are far more interested in, say, the natural world or art.


In Short, "If You Know One Person with Autism..."

The bottom line is that, if you know one person with autism, you may be an expert in that person -- but you are not an expert in autism. That's because autism manifests itself uniquely in every individual. Yes, there are qualities that are MORE likely among people with autism than among the general population. And there are treatments and approaches that are useful for MANY people with autism. But by understanding that each autistic individual is unique, you'll be able to help the autistic person in your life to reach his or her highest potential.
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