“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away”.
Here are some hideous myths of autism, and a little back story of how they came to be prevailing thought… In case you were unaware, the myths presented here are the most commonly believed ideas about autism, and while completely WRONG, these myths seem to stick in popular culture. I suspect this is because TV shows and films depict autistics in a very stereotyped manner. But you know, like most stereotypification, it’s a form of discrimination and it is actually deeply hurtful to the population in question.
Strangely myths tend to gain more traction than the facts, and that it something we MUST change. To be an advocate for autism, to protect your children and yourself, be educated on the truth. The facts are presented here, alongside the myths. Hopefully this list will help you see how misinformation spreads, and how you can help stop it — and instead: how you can be a spokesperson for autism and spread the truth!
1: MYTH – Autistic people do not have empathy
Probably the number 1 biggest myth about autism is the idea that autistic people are basically psychopaths, and cannot feel or comprehend empathy. The notion goes, by an autistic’s ‘flat affect’ (where their facial expression is “flat”, without emotion, or they over-exaggerate expressions which seem artificial) indicates they cannot possibly feel any real emotions, let alone understand empathy. Another reported tangent to this myth is that an autistic person’s tendency is to not show caring behaviours, and this further suggests autistics lack empathy. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Truth: Autistics experience empathy deeply, often to the point of exhaustion and overwhelm. Autistic people withdraw from emotion as a means to cope with the hypersenstivity of other’s emotions. Sponging in the feelings of others is commonplace for an autistic and they often find themselves introjecting pain, sadness and anger.
Origin of the myth: Early (misinformed) research into autism! Kanner (1943) worked with children and defined them as being autistic because they had “psychoses”, were “aloof, distant, retarded”. In 1978, Rutter expanded that definition to include “unable to make relationships, lacking in empathy, and lacking attachment behaviour”. These conclusions were drawn based on observations only, and derived for the creation of diagnostic criteria. Since this time, research has advanced and we know that our past understanding of autism was wrong.
2: MYTH – Autism is caused by vaccines
Uh-Oh, this is a triggering topic for most autistics. Why? Because this myth has a very strong following of mostly parents… who choose not to vaccinate their children (for things like measles, mumps, rubella, or hepatitis) for fear it will give their children autism! The idea is that autism is so bad, so horrible, you need to avoid it at all costs, is upsetting to autistics. Furthermore, the idea that some parents choose to not vaccinate their children (and instead let them suffer from preventable diseases, like hepatitis) is deeply saddening to us all!
Truth: We do not know what causes autism but it AINT vaccinations. Research evidence suggests a combination of genetics and environmental factors leads to autistic populations. There also have been MANY studies reporting autism in both in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, so nothing about vaccinations screams ‘you’re gonna get autism’. This lie needs to stop. Vaccinations provide long-term, sometimes lifelong protection against preventable diseases.
Origin of the myth: A fraudulent research paper! In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield and 12 co-authors published in The Lancet, based on the cases of 12 patients, which proposed a link between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccination and the development of autism in children. Almost immediately after the journal published the ‘research’, other experts denied the claim, showing their own research to the contrary. Over the next few years, many children died because parents did not vaccinate their children for fear of causing autism… and then in 2004, a journalist, Brian Deer, published an investigation into Wakefield’s undisclosed financial interests, finding therein that Wakefield had not only lied about the research and lied about taking blood samples from autistic children, but he also paid participants to say vaccinations were linked to autism! Since the 2004 investigation, the editor of The Lancet declared feeling “deceived” and “horrified” at the lies, Andrew Wakefield was been publicly reprimanded and in 2010 lost his license to practice medicine. Also in 2010, he (along with co-authors Professors John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch) were found guilty of unethical conduct, dishonesty and the abuse of developmental delayed (and autistic) children, by the prominent UK’s General Medical Council. All up, these dudes were fraudulent and were caught out!
3: MYTH – Autistic people are retarded
This is a myth this really pisses me off, partly because I very much dislike that term, ‘retard’. Most autistics have average to very high level IQs, making them on-par (and smarter) than typical populations. Generally though, autistics experience a sort of ‘uneven educational profile’ – which means that they may excel in some areas, and be lacking in others. It’s likely this contributes to the myth, because an autistic person may be brilliant at mathematics, but struggle to choose clothes in the morning. Arguably, though, the issue here is more of how neurotypicals misunderstand the autistic experience…
Truth: Autism is a neurological disability, not an intellectual disability. Autism causes difficulties in social and emotional communication, and autistics will likely have repetitive behaviours and special interests… but none of this means they lack intelligence. Yes, autism can present with an intellectual disability, but this is barely 10% of autistics, and even then, the intellectual disability may be marginal, and not very severe. Also, it’s worthy noting that some researchers like Crespi, think autism is correlated with high intelligence!
Origin of the myth: Lack of public knowledge. Okay, so in this case, the myth has come about due to a lack of awareness on autism, with the snippets of known information being largely attributed to research publications about classical (non-verbal/ low IQ) autism and media depictions of autistics as “idiot savants”(1988 film Rain Man; 1997 film Cube), “non-verbal weirdos” (1986 film, The Boy Who Could Fly), or intellectually disabled/ afflicted (2001 film I Am Sam)… Research has, for a very long time, focused on “lower functioning” levels of autism, and that means that what most people know of autism is that we are just that– low functioning, unintelligent, or… ‘stupid’. But we’re actually a spectrum of intelligences, and certainly — we’re not “retarded”.
As an aside, a film I liked very much was ‘Please Stand By Me’ (2017) – it totally made me cry in parts coz it showed both the brilliant parts of autism and the struggles we face, along with the ideas and thoughts of neurotypicals.
4: MYTH – Autism only affects boys
This myth is quickly being dispelled, and I’m actually quite surprised it still has traction. I mean, who is the most well-known autistic person in the world today? Temple Grandin. A woman!
Truth: Autism affects both genders: girls and boys can be autistic. Currently, statistics show the ratio of male-female diagnoses of autism as 4 to 1 (4 men, to 1 female). Autism is diagnosed in more males than females, and this is likely due to the diagnostic criteria seeming to exclude or limit the female experience. Researchers Gould and Ashton-Smith (2011) say that the current diagnostic criteria is too narrow, and it excludes women (more from them, in this research paper). As more research comes to light, and more women come forth declaring their diagnosis, we are beginning to see that autism is not a male disorder; it affects women too.
Origin of the myth: Early (misguided) research into autism. Autism has always been viewed as a male disorder, right back when it was first publicized in the 1940’s by Leo Kanner. Although Hans Asperger declared that autism might be seen in girls after puberty, he focused his research into boys. Thus, research into/ diagnoses of autism became linked to the abnormal behavioural characteristics of males. From then until much later, research still focused around boys, and while some researchers tried to introduce female autistic traits, 2002 research by Simon Baron-Cohen into “Autism and Extreme Male Brain Theory” pushed females further out of mind: Autism is a male experience, associated with interests in computers, engineering, science, and technical activities. The female autistic experience is being researched more, and as the years pass, we’re developing a greater understanding of how autistic women struggle and cope with their experience of autism.
5: MYTH – Autistic people are savants
Savant syndrome is a condition which exists all on its own. To be diagnosed with savant syndrome is to be, well, strictly speaking, extremely rare. Prodigious, or genius savants generally have significant intellectual difficulties or disabilities in combination with a very high degree of ability without formal training, in an area that far exceeds the normal levels of functioning. Savant abilities are ones that leave you in amazement: rapid and correct calculations, memorizing and correctly reciting all numbers from 600 phone books, perfect artistic or musical ability, drawing of accurate maps, making puzzles picture-side down by only looking at the shapes…
Truth: Savant ability is profound. It *can* occur in autism, but it is rare. Some autistics can be savants, and some savants can be autistic… but not all autistics are savants! Savants occur 1 in 1-million people, and some research suggests savant symptoms occur 1 in 10 autistic individuals, but remember, even savantism occurs on a spectrum. I may be gifted in my IQ, and exceptional in some areas, but I’m just “twice-exceptional” – I’m not really a savant… So, remember, while autistics are possible candidates for savantism, not every autistic is a genius savant.
Origin of the myth: Media! Film! TV! The stereotypification of the “idiot savant” most well-known in media, is the depiction of the autistic man, Raymond, in the 1988 film ‘Rain Man’ (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman). In this film savant ability is demostrated in the scene with the toothpicks. As they fall to the ground, the character Raymond looks down at them and says: “82, 82, 82… toothpicks”. You quickly find out that Raymond has correctly counted 246 toothpicks on the floor, simply by looking at them. Most people who grew up during the 80s remember ‘Rain Man’ and have a strong association of savant syndrome with autism. Also, in the news, autism is often reported as the lifestyle story/ the amazing savant autistics: see, here, here, here, and here. All these autistics are just WOW in their ability, and they ought to receive praise… but just because these people are savants does not mean all autistics are savants.
Okay, so here are a few myths DEBUNKED. Let me know if you want to hear more!
*FYI: Top photo on this post is by PhotoBay, and was chosen to be used here to make a mockery of the ‘puzzle piece’ autism analogy. Call it… dark humour.