5 Myths About Autism We Need to Dispel
When I took my son to a pediatric developmental psychologist to be evaluated for autism, most of my friends and family thought I was going overboard, that I was paranoid. Sometimes I desperately wanted to agree with them. I wanted my son to be “normal.” I wanted an easier path for him and for me.
But I wasn’t paranoid, and at the end of a long day of evaluations and interviews, my son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. It’s been six years since that day, and while we’ve had our difficult days and months and years, we’ve also come a long way together.
The biggest transformation has been not with my son (although he’s grown tremendously) but with me. Instead of living in a land of fear and bargaining, I now see autism as a struggle and a gift. It is both simultaneously. I will always wish my son didn’t have to work so hard, but I will also always be so thankful for who he is.
Over the last six years, I’ve also encountered many more people who disbelieve his diagnosis, who are misinformed or uninformed about autism, who cling to old-fashioned and clichéd stereotypes. I’ve learned that to be a parent of an autistic child is to be an educator and an advocate. I find myself constantly redefining autism for those whose perceptions and behavior might most impact my son. I have meetings with the school. I do presentations for his classmates. I share our latest goals with grandparents.
Still, there are a few things I wish I could say to every person who watches my son with questions in their eyes. Since I can’t, the best I can do is to share it here and hope these words will travel far and wide for the betterment of every autistic.
Myth Number 1: The Autistic Brain Isn’t as Developed as the Typical Brain
I’ve heard this a lot. Words such as “underdeveloped” or “disordered” are used to describe the brain development of autistic people. While there are scientific reasons for these words in the medical community, the rest of us have no idea what we’re talking about when we use these words.
The truth is the autistic brain is underdeveloped in some areas, but it’s also true that in other areas, the brain’s development is quite advanced. Studies show the autistic brain may be better suited for some everyday tasks than a typically developed one.
Myth Number 2: Every Autistic Person Is a Savant
On the other side of the coin is the idea that every autistic is a savant or a genius in some obscure area of knowledge. I’ve encountered this myth, even in the medical community. Because my son is quite intelligent, I’ve been told to expect savantlike qualities to emerge.
But I don’t buy it. In our long and close relationship with the autistic community, I’ve met only one or two true savants. I’ve met many who possess special skills or who show an affinity for a certain topic or ability, but it is not the same as genius.
Last semester, my son was awarded the “Technology Expert” award for his class. Watching his pride as he accepted his award reminded me of how far ahead he is in some areas and how far he still has to go in others. While his tech skills are, I admit, quite advanced, he is not a savant. He’s an autistic child whose special interest is technology.
He’s worked hard to gain his skills, and we’ve worked hard to keep up with him. For instance, while he understands computers and networks completely, the increasing social aspect of the internet has been a real struggle for him. We strive to explain it to him while keeping him safe. We’ve had to adopt several measures to maintain his security while simultaneously giving him the freedom his growing skills require.
In other words, the association of Rain Man, the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie of the same name, with autism is a weak link on its best day. This assumption is dangerous because it diminishes the abilities of the many autistics who have unremarkable gifts and talents, making it easier to dismiss the autistic altogether.
Myth Number 3: Autism Can Be Cured
This myth is losing traction, but some still believe it. First of all, it assumes autism is a diagnosis that deserves to be defeated. Despite the difficulties of living with autism, many of those most affected are now recognizing that autism is a deeply integral part of who their child is and that to defeat the autism is to defeat the person.
Also, autism never goes away. Yes, there is therapy, and the more difficult behaviors and coping mechanisms can be improved, but autism will always exist. Just because an autistic person learns to perform executive function skills does not mean that autism will not continue to profoundly impact his life at every stage.
Myth Number 4: High-functioning Autism is Better than Low-functioning Autism
Often, autistics are referred to either as high-functioning or low-functioning. The logical assumptions of these classifications are then made: high-functioning is better with less negative impact and low-functioning leaves very little hope for the future.
These assumptions aren’t only false; they’re unhelpful. When an autistic is categorized as high-functioning, many of the difficulties of being high-functioning are ignored. Because these supposed high-functioning autistics blend so well into society, their difficulties are misinterpreted and their needs go unmet.
Similarly, when a person is classified as low-functioning, their abilities may never even be uncovered or utilized. These autistics are dismissed as having little to offer and thus become invisible. How much we miss when we do this.
Myth Number 5: Meltdowns Are Just Temper Tantrums (and Should Be Disciplined)
The meltdown is something most autistics go through. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it is often the result of great sensory pain, an inability to communicate effectively or the result of uncontrollable anxiety.
It is not a temper tantrum.
Discipline is not the answer.
Meltdowns serve a function and must be understood. When we take the time to understand the triggers for each autistic person, we help them to regulate their inside world to match their outside world. This takes patience, understanding and a commitment to meet the needs and not just treat the behaviors.
These days my son is doing very well. He is mainstreamed in a school that has been, from the outset, willing to learn about autism and, more importantly, about my son.
About the author:
Diamond is a freelance writer who believes in dispelling myths about health, wellness and autism. When she’s not writing, she can be found hiking the trails with her son.