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In public consciousness, there are many misconceptions about autism and ASD (autism spectrum disorder). Because autism is both prevalent and complex in nature, it is especially important that the myths be parsed out from the facts.

Though autism research has gained momentum, much remains to be learned about ASD and the individuals it affects. In the mean time, there are various misconceptions we can confidently debunk to prevent the spread of faulty information.

Knowing the facts is the first step to providing great care and support for loved ones and neighbors on the autism spectrum. Those living with autism will benefit from your knowledge, empathy, and encouragement. Here are five discredited myths to help you understand what is true about autism, and what is unequivocally false.

Myth 1: Autism is a mental health disorder

It’s a common misconception that autism is a mental health disorder, or even an emotional or behavioral disorder. This is false: autism is a neurological disorder involving abnormalities in brain structure and neurotransmitter levels, the cause of which is rooted in gene mutations.

That said, autism does impact behavior, emotion and cognitive ability: this is a developmental issue that manifests early in childhood. Mental health disorders, on the other hand, are not genetically predetermined and may come about at any stage in life for any number of reasons unrelated to DNA.

Though autism is not a mental health disorder, individuals with autism may be prone to conditions like anxiety or ADHD. Treatment for autism can also be similar to that of mental health treatment: both may benefit from behavioral(ABA) and psychological therapy.

Myth 2: People with autism can’t understand or express emotion

People with autism may have difficulty with social interaction, but they feel emotions just like you and me. Autistic people can fall in love, have families, friends, pets and children. Because the autism spectrum is a wide one, each individual is bound to experience, express and sense emotions differently.

Emotions aren’t absent, but an autistic person may have trouble communicating and regulating them, and experience difficulty reading them from indirect social cues alone. Autistic individuals don’t lack the motivation for friendship, love, and emotional connection, but they may initially lack the social tools to relate and therefore appear awkward or aloof.

It’s important that this difference in emotional intelligence is understood correctly, because individuals on the spectrum can be incredibly sensitive and empathetic. They just need help bridging the gap between feeling and expression. Social Group Therapy sessions are a great place to practice proper socialization in a controlled and supervised environment.

Myth 3: Autism is curable

The autism spectrum disorder (ASD) consists of many types of autism, therefore, even if one or two were curable, there is not an overall cure and likely never will be. Though autism is often a lifelong condition, there have been some cases of young children receiving early intervention services improving enough to “test out” of the diagnosis.

The most effective treatment appears to be behavioral (ABA) therapy that equips autistic individuals with the social and communication tools they need to live happy and healthy lives. With the appropriate services, many individuals on the spectrum go on to have successful lives and careers as high functioning members of society.

Be wary, because there have also been many products touted as cures, like the Miracle Mineral Solution and Chelation therapy. The FDA warns that such products and therapies are not only unproven, but can be incredibly dangerous.

Myth 4: People with autism all have “special” abilities

Not all individuals with autism have special abilities as seen in Rain Man, but some truly do. Around 10 percent of autistic people exhibit savant abilities like photographic memory, extraordinary math talent or advanced creativity (for comparison, only 1 percent of the non-autistic population exhibit such tendencies). Many people on the autism spectrum also have abnormally high intellect in specific areas that interest them.

Autistic individuals often display keen attention to detail and precise technological skills. Savant abilities are certainly not the norm, but their existence has been puzzling to scientists for many decades. Some researchers believe the manifestation of such abilities could have to do with heavy concentration on particular talents making up for other cognitive or social deficits.

Myth 5: Autism is the result of bad parenting

Uninformed people love to blame parents of children with autism, whether it be for their vaccination choices or child-rearing environment. The myth of parent wrongdoing dates back to the mid-20th century idea of “cold mothers,” whose unloving treatment (in theory) caused children to withdraw socially and become unresponsive. This notion emerged around 1950 and has since been widely debunked.

Though parents are no longer blamed for their frigidness, other scapegoats have emerged in recent years — especially in light of a recent surge in autism diagnoses. One persistent misconception is the claim that vaccines cause autism, even though the study that linked the two was retracted, and the doctor’s medical license revoked. On the other hand, credible studies have linked prenatal factors like parent age and chemical exposure to an increased risk.  

Though the genetics are complex and not well understood, there is a medical consensus that autism has a strong genetic basis. Bad parenting simply does not cause autism, but good parenting is an incredible asset in helping those on the spectrum cope with their condition and the world.

Featured image: Gisella Klein via Flickr