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13.What are some of the common myths about autism?

Autism is puzzling disease. There is no known cause and no known cure. It strikes one child in a family and leaves another alone. It is profoundly disabling in one child and difficult to notice in another. This mystery has given rise to many myths and misconceptions about the disease. These generalizations are popularized in books and movies but are rarely appropriate. Those interested enough to investigate will learn that autistic people are as unique in their behaviors and affect as no autistic people. The list of symptoms and behaviors associated with autism is long; each affected person expresses his or her own combination of these behaviors.

Because these beliefs are widely held, it may be instructive to review some of these common myths, along with their accompanying realities.

Myth: Autism is a very rare developmental disorder.

Reality: Autism occurs in about 1 in 160 births.

Autism is found all through the world in families of all racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds.

Myth: Only boys suffer from autism.

Reality: Although autism is four times more common among boys than girls, many girls are diagnosed on the autism spectrum and suffer from many symptoms of autism.

Myth: All autistic people must eventually be institutionalized.

Reality: Most autistic people live at home with their families or in group homes as they get older. Only a minority of people with autism require institutionalization. Those that are institutionalized often have severe mental retardation or other physical or neurological disabilities along with their diagnosis of autism.

Myth: Autistic people never want to be touched.

Reality: While some autistic people are hypersensitive to tactile stimuli (i.e., being touched or touching other things), many are fine with being touched, hugged, playing contact sports, or being examined by a physician

Myth: Autistic people are often intellectually or musically gifted. They are capable of learning a new language in a few days, memorizing encyclopedias, or multiplying large numbers in their heads.

Reality: Approximately 70–80 percent of children with autism have IQs below average. Many are mentally retarded (MR). The remainder of autistics have average or above average IQs. Very few autistic people possess remarkable mathematical skills or musical abilities. These types of gifted autistic people were called idiot savants in the past. Idiot savant is now considered a pejorative term. Autistic savant is the preferred term currently.

 William’s comment:

 Describing the average autistic child as “gifted” is a stretch, certainly. However, Liam does seem to have an ear for music and can carry a tune. He does sight read and has an unusually retentive memory. Right now, at age 3 years 7 months, he’s starting to read phonetically.

Myth: Autism is caused by cold, distant, or abusive mothering.

Reality: Autism is a biologically caused brain disorder. While the cause of autism remains elusive, this often quoted theory by Freud is as wrong as it is harmful. Thankfully, it has been out of favor for many years. Freud’s theory is also called the “ice mother” or “refrigerator mother” theory.

 William’s comment:

 “Poppycock!” Our kid got enough love to move a mountain.

 Myth: Autistic children are insensitive to pain.

Reality: Although a few severely autistic may not appear to feel pain, most children react normally to painful stimuli.

Myth: Most children with autism never learn to talk.

Reality: Between 40 percent and 50 percent of children with autism have little or no language skills; this condition is often associated with severe mental retardation.

However, if autistic children are identified early and undergo intensive speech therapy, as many as three quarters of autistic children are able to talk.

 William’s comment:

 At diagnosis, Liam had very limited speech for his age. Over the past year, he has shown considerable improvement. He’s not on par with his peers, but is making strides as far as fluency and expanding his vocabulary.

 Myth: Children with autism never make eye contact.

Reality: Many children with autism establish eye contact. It may be less than or different from the typical child, but they do look at people, smile, and express many other wonderful nonverbal communications

 William’s comment:

 Liam’s eye contact is less than a typical kid.

 Myth: Autism is caused by vaccinations.

Reality: Autistic symptoms usually appear in the first two to three years of life, at a time when children are receiving many immunizations. The appearance of autistic symptoms coincident with vaccinations has led many to theorize that autism is caused by vaccinations. However, after many rigorous scientific studies, no causal relationship has been found.

 William’s comment:

 We don’t feel that the vaccinations had anything to do with Liam’s diagnosis. We are vaccinating our daughter as well.

 Myth: Autistic children show no emotion.

Reality: Autistic children can be emotionally withdrawn and may be unable to understand the emotions of others. However, they commonly exhibit love and affection, anticipation, and surprise and desire, as well as fear and anxiety. Their ability to express these emotions may be limited.

Myth: Children with autism are completely cut off from human relationships.

Reality: Autistic people may have few and atypical social relationships, but they have relationships nonetheless. Their difficulty with communication and empathy make it difficult to create friendships. However, autistic children are loveable and respond to love and affection. For example, a young child with autism may feel love and attachment for their mother and father, but still dislike being touched by them. They may develop friendly relationships with teachers and classmates and miss them during summer vacations.

 William’s comment:

 Liam isn’t crazy about his baby sister, but we’re not sure how much of this has to do with his diagnosis.

 Myth: Autism is caused by chemical imbalances or allergies that can be cured by special diets or nutritional supplements.

Reality: While these theories have undeniable appeal, no credible scientific evidence exists to support the theory that autism is caused by vitamin or other nutritional deficiency nor is there evidence that diet or nutritional supplements can cure autism. Children with autism certainly can have food allergies, toxic exposures, and nutritional deficiencies and correcting these problems can help such a child to be healthier, but they won’t cure autism.

Myth: Autistic people are always helpless and dependent, unable to live alone or contribute to society.

Reality: Autism is a disease with a spectrum of disability that ranges from nonverbal, severely retarded people completely dependent on others for their care, to those with better than average IQs and marketable skills who are able to live independently.

 William’s comment:

 We have every reason to believe that our son will lead a very fulfilling life. He might not be throwing for 400 yards and five touchdowns on Saturday afternoons or be class president, but then again, neither will a lot of other parents’ kids who are deemed “typical.”


Hypersensitive - Excessive sensitivity to sensations or stimuli.

Mentally retarded (MR) - A person with a low cognitive ability or low IQ.

Autistic savants  - Autistic individuals who display incredible aptitude for one or two skills (e.g., amazing musical or art ability).

Refrigerator  mother - A phrase, in Freudian psychological theory, that was used to describe mothers who acted coldly toward their children. This behavior was once erroneously thought to be the cause of (infantile) autism. However, if autistic children are identified early and undergo intensive speech therapy, as many as three quarters of autistic children are able to talk.

Causal relationship - A correlation between two variables where a change in the first variable causes a change in the second.

Disability - A personal limitation or challenge that represents a substantial disadvantage when attempting to function in society; should be considered within the context of the environment, personal factors, and the need for individualized supports.



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