Myths & misconceptions
It’s time…… to talk about what autism is not.
There are myths, misunderstandings and misconceptions abound, around the subject of autism. In fact many late diagnosed adults admit to having had at least one of them prior to diagnosis. (Yes, that includes me.) So, it’s important to address these myths, because they are stigmatising, misleading and harmful to the autistic community.
Let's get myth-busting...
Common myths around autism
Only children are autistic
Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental difference.
Autistic children grow into autistic adults.
Only boys can be autistic
Autistic boys and girls who go on to be autistic men and women.
Autistic females are often missed or only diagnosed later in life.
Autistic people don't have empathy
We have as much or as little empathy as any other human.
We may, or may not show it in the same way as non-autistic people.
Many autistic people have extreme empathy.
We are unable to show, or even feel emotion
See number 3!
Autism is an intellectual disability
If someone has an intellectual (or any other) disability it is in addition to autism.
Equally, intellectual disability is not autism, but the person may also be autistic.
All autistic people are savants or have a superpower
Although many of us consider our unique abilities as ‘superpowers’, only a small number of autistic people are savants.
Autism is a disease that needs treatment
Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference, or condition. In other words, our autistic brains just work differently to neurotypical brains. We do not need treatment or therapy to make us behave like non-autistic people.
Autism is a psychiatric disorder
Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference or condition, not a psychiatric disorder.
We may have mental health conditions in addition to our autism.
Autism is caused by vaccines
This harmful myth has been completely and utterly debunked by science. In the 1990s some dubious research was published, igniting this myth around vaccines and autism. Science has since concluded that the research was not conducted under accepted scientific standards and was also completely non-replicable. The physician behind the study has since been stripped of his medical license.
There are more autistic people than ever before, and autism is becoming an epidemic
Autism is not a disease, nor is on the increase.
As awareness and understanding of autism grows, more people are diagnosed, including females, adults and elderly people, who were previously missed.
Many humans have autistic brains but may never know it.
Autism is simply a variation of the human brain.
Autism is caused by bad parenting
This myth came about in the 1940s when Psychiatrist, Leo Kanner was publishing his work on autism. Psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, along with the press of that time, misinterpreted one of Kanner’s observations about parents of autistic children and this led to the dreadfully harmful term, ‘refrigerator mothers’ being coined. Unfortunately, it stuck hard and is taking a very long time to unstick.
All autistic children sit in the corner and rock.
They are unable to interact.
Some autistic children rock, and some non-autistic children rock, for all kinds of reasons. It is not an autistic trait.
Autistic people are anti-social or have no need or desire for social contact.
All humans have social and companionship needs and autistic people are no different. Sometimes, the way we outwardly appear to be socialising is misunderstood by non-autistic people. Some of us are very happy to spend long periods doing our own thing, whilst others need much more social contact. Our experiences and ways of enjoying healthy social lives and relationships may appear different to society’s social norms and expectations.
Autistic people are high functioning or low functioning.
Functioning labels such as these are no longer an acceptable way to describe autistic people. It comes from the days when Asperger Syndrome was the term used to describe autistic children who had average or above average intelligence. Asperger Syndrome is no longer used as a diagnosis (please see the history of autism page for an explanation of this) although many of us who were given that diagnosis, choose to identify with it.
But the point is, that these labels, which are given by an observer of the actually autistic person, mean nothing at all, and worse still, they can prevent us from getting any help or support that we need. It does not describe the individual's unique skills and challenges, nor does it described their lived experience.
When they are able to, autistic people, mask and camouflage, and try their best to 'behave' and 'function' as society expects us to.This is a lot of hard work, but some of us are better than others at masking our difficulties, so that they are not visible. Does this make those people 'low functioning'? No, it doesn't. They can still suffer from unemployment, social isolation, meltdowns in private, burnout and trauma, all as a direct result of appearing 'high functioning'.
Furthermore, we can be both 'high' and 'low' functioning on the same day - even within the same hour. When a person has severe pain some of the time and moderate pain the rest of the time, does that make them 'highly suffering' or 'rarely suffering'?
So you see, these terms are very much outdated and not remotely helpful in any way.
We are all a little bit autistic / we are all on the spectrum somewhere.
No, we aren't. Either someone is autistic or they are not. We can't be a little bit autistic, just like you can't be a little bit gay, or a little bit human. It's a brain difference, or variation, that make us experience the world differently to non-autistic people.
Sometimes people say this to try to make the person 'feel better'. But please don't. If we've opened up to you and told you this very personal information, please don't invalidate us, or make our personal challenges and differences seem insignificant.
Sadly, when some children are diagnosed, their parents are advised to say that the child is only 'a little bit autistic'. This is purely because of the stigma that still exists and quite honestly, practitioners who say this to parents and autistic people should be ashamed of themselves.
What to say & what not to say,
to and about autistic people
When someone tells you they are autistic, it can sometimes seem difficult to know what to say, especially if you’ve known them for a long time before their diagnosis. It’s OK not to know what to say, but there are certain things that people say to us with good intention yet are actually insulting and invalidating.
In addition, saying things like ‘we are all a little bit autistic’ greatly devalues our very real challenges and struggles. Autistic people may understand that you do not mean to insult, but it still hurts us - especially if we are newly diagnosed and therefore at a deeply sensitive time, and coming to terms with an enormous life changing discovery ourselves.
If we tell you we are autistic, we are choosing to share something deeply vulnerable and personal about ourselves and we are already anxious about doing so. We are acutely aware of the pervading ignorance and stigma surrounding autism. In addition, we will have travelled a long journey to get to this point.
If you have already said some of these things to autistic people because you weren’t aware of how invalidating they were, then the best thing you can do is continue to support our community by learning more about it. Reading pages like these, written by autistic people themselves and ask us about our autistic experiences, views and opinions.
So what should you say? Probably, as little as possible, allowing the autistic person to open up, if they wish to, and avoiding saying any of the big no-nos! Use open questions where possible and try to work out if they are happy about their diagnosis, or currently new to it and perhaps feeling rather negative. This will guide you between saying something like:
I'm so happy for you, you finally got your diagnosis! How do you feel about it all?
How are you feeling about the diagnosis?
Be sure to validate their experience, whatever you say, and make them feel welcome and accepted. Some of the following may be appropriate:
Thanks for sharing that with me.
I'm honoured that you feel able to share that with me.
I don't know much about autism, but I would like to learn more.
What can I do to support you?
I don't think I have met an autistic person before.
Autism is as much a part of humanity as is the capacity to dream.
– Kathleen Seidel