It’s myth-slaying time. Let’s bust some autism myths, shall we?
Table of Contents
Autism, a complex neurological condition, is surrounded by myths that promote bias and hamper the recognition and support that individuals on the autism spectrum truly need. As an autistic myself, I’ve all too often run into trouble because of misconceptions and misunderstandings about the true nature of autism.
In this blog post, I will debunk some of the most prevalent myths and provide a firsthand perspective as well as factual information to foster a more inclusive and understanding society.
I’m sure you’ve heard these before: “Autism is caused by vaccines”, and, “All autistics are savants”.
Time to get our facts about autism straight!
Autism Myth 1: Autistic People are Just Socially Awkward.
This is absolutely not true, and it really gets my hackles up when people say that.
While it is true that social challenges are common among many autistic individuals, reducing autism to mere social awkwardness is a gross oversimplification. Even more problematic is the inherent implication that we should simply learn some basic social skills, as this would magically “cure” our “disorder”.
This assumption is so wrong on so many levels. Let me start by saying this: We are not JUST socially awkward. It goes much deeper than that. There are the sensory issues, e.g., our need for predictability and structure, and a whole host of other—related—issues.
And, BTW, my social skills are (theoretically) just fine. I learnt them the academic way, literally by the book.
So why do people still believe this harmful stereotype?
There are several factors at play here. The DSM-V’s focus on social challenges, a limited understanding of autism, and societal stereotypes definitely play a role here. But probably the biggest culprit is media portrayal. Ever seen a film or read a book with an autistic character who wasn’t a total social failure? If so, please share the title with me, because I’d love to know!
So next time someone tells you we are just socially inept, don’t believe them. It’s a toxic lie.
The truth is, autism is about much more than “just” social issues and it would be really nice if people could just stop making us feel as if we were faking it. Impostor Syndrome is very real. Please, please, please, get educated.
Read books with positive autism representation, like my novel “Night’s Reign”.
Autism Myth 2: Autism is a Tragedy That Needs to be Cured
Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but autism is no illness and does not require a cure.
In reality, autism is a natural neurological variation of human neurology, not a disease or affliction and does not need to be eradicated. In fact, it’s not even a negative neurological variation, as too many people still think. Without autistic minds, you probably wouldn’t even be able to read this blog post, as there would be no computers, no smartphones, and no internet. Ever thought of that?
This really makes you wonder: Why do people still believe this toxic lie?
Again, we are dealing with several contributing factors.
The historical context, coupled with the medical model of disability, reinforces the notion that autism needs to be fixed to fit societal norms. To make matters worse, some influential organisations still perpetuate the idea that autism can and should be cured through biomedical interventions or behavioural therapy. (Autism Speaks and ABA, anyone?)
And, once more, TV shows, films, and novels continue to reinforce the idea that autism is nothing less than catastrophic and needs to be cured.
Speaking from experience here, autism absolutely has its challenges, but without my autism, I would not be me—and I love being me. My autism enriches my life in ways neurotypicals wouldn’t even be able to imagine. I do not wish to be robbed of something that brings so much value to my life.
The idea that autism is a tragedy and a curse is an ill-informed and damaging myth. One we should break by promoting acceptance, understanding, and support for autistic people. When we embrace neurodiversity and recognise that everyone—including autistics—has something of value to offer, we can make this world a place where everyone can thrive.
Autism Myth 3: Autistic People Lack Empathy
I can actually sort of understand why someone would believe this, because, let’s face it, we’re not really known for our overt displays of affection. But that doesn’t mean we don’t empathise with others. Trust me, we do.
We honestly care on a very deep level. Just because we express ourselves differently, that does not make our feelings any less real or valid.
This myth persists for several reasons: As I already mentioned, we express our empathy differently. Speaking just for myself here, I am much more likely to want to provide someone with a practical solution to their problem than to just commiserate with them—I honestly see little value in the latter.
Then there’s the fact that we simply don’t always recognise social cues and nonverbal communication. This means we may not pick up on someone’s distress, and therefore not react “properly” either. That’s not a lack of empathy, but rather a simple albeit unfortunate misunderstanding.
On top of that, we may experience sensory overload in emotional situations. This will make it hard if not completely impossible for us to express empathy. Instead, we may very well experience an autistic shutdown or meltdown instead. Speaking from experience here, I have had my share of autistic shutdowns in highly charged situations, which usually got me pegged as aloof and stand-offish. If only people knew…
And, you may already have guessed it: media representations often perpetuate the myth of autistic individuals lacking empathy.
You don’t need to be a genius to see how harmful this myth is. It dehumanises us, which can ultimately lead to far-reaching consequences. We’ve seen some pretty gruesome examples of that in Nazi Germany.
Autistics have a rich emotional life and many of us are deeply empathic. However, we show empathy in our own unique ways, which may be different from what neurotypicals expect and recognise as expressions of empathy.
The real question that arises here is this: Do neurotypicals lack empathy for their neurodiverse fellow humans?
Autism Myth 4: Autism is Caused by Vaccines
Back in 1998 the Lancet published a small study by Andrew Wakefield, claiming that the MMR vaccine caused autism in all 12 children included in the study. The study was retracted in February 2010, due to serious ethical violations and falsification of data. Later that year Wakefield was struck off the medical register for acting dishonestly, and showing disregard for the welfare of children involved in his study.
Although numerous large-scale scientific studies have since refuted the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism, the myth persists even today. People still refuse to vaccinate their children for fear they will develop autism, but they fail to see that their refusal to vaccinate leaves their children at risk of lasting disabilities and even death due to preventable diseases.
Probably the most important factor contributing to the perpetuation of this myth is the rapid spread of misinformation on the internet and social media by anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. And it’s easy to see why. Science is not easy, and most people do not fully understand the intricacies of complex scientific concepts. It can be tempting to believe someone who can spin a likely tale in easy to understand language, especially if this tale is “backed up” by anecdotal “evidence” and pseudoscientific “facts”.
Extensive studies involving millions of individuals have consistently found no credible evidence linking vaccines to autism. Public health organisations, medical professionals, and scientific experts overwhelmingly support the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. The results of the Wakefield study have never been replicated. Never. If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.
Additionally, I would like to point out that I much prefer having an autistic child over a dead one. And I know what I’m talking about, as I have both. Thankfully, my little girl did not die of a preventable disease, and I will never have to blame myself for her death.
Autism Myth 5: All Autistics are Savants
I saved this one for last because… well, who doesn’t know Rain Man?
However, to go from Rain Man was a savant, so all autistics must be savants, is rather a stretch. And while it is true that some autistics possess exceptional abilities in specific areas, that doesn’t necessarily make them savants. To understand this, you first need to know exactly what a savant is.
To be considered a savant, someone must have a serious mental disability or developmental disorder, and an extraordinary talent, knowledge, or ability—typically in one area only. Their IQ is usually below average. And, though some have normal IQ, none of them appear to have an IQ over 130)
So, despite the fact that I am talented in several areas, I am not a savant, for several reasons: my talents are not exceptional (no matter how much I’d like that to be the case), and they are pretty evenly spread out over several areas. Oh, and I happen to have a measured IQ of 147, which effectively excludes me from the club of savants. Not that I mind. I don’t think I’d like being a savant. Their skills, though impressive, are most often useless.
So why do people still gobble this nonsense about all autistics being savants up?
First and foremost, I think this is because it speaks to the imagination. It’s sensational! And who doesn’t like a good bit of hyped up nonsense in their lives? Then there’s the media portrayals reinforcing the myth, and our own confirmation bias takes care of the rest. We see what we expect to see. Like I pointed out above, my giftedness might easily be mistaken for savant abilities, when in fact I have no savant skills at all. Any exceptional skills I might have developed result from hard work, an eye for detail, and hyperfocus.
Autistics have a range of talents, interests, and challenges. Most of us are not savants, but our hyperfocus and eye for detail may help us develop our skills in certain areas faster and to a higher degree of proficiency than otherwise would have been possible. To think all of us are savants is lazy, incorrect, and, quite frankly, insulting. Especially to those of us who are gifted with a higher than average IQ.
Why is it Harmful to Believe these 5 Autism Myths?
Believing and perpetuating myths about autism can have dire consequences. At best, it can lead to stigmatisation and exclusion and rob us of our individuality and the support and understanding we need. This will obstruct positive changes in our society that could potentially make life easier for autistics and other neurodiverse people.
If this isn’t bad enough already, the consequences can be worse. They can lead concerned and frustrated parents to seek “cures” for the autism of their child, which may not only cost them a fortune, but will more likely than not leave their children psychologically damaged for life.
At the very worst, the false belief in these myths can result in unnecessary deaths of children due to preventable diseases, and a lifetime of regret for the bereft parents.
Unfortunately, myths are notoriously hard to weed out. I can present you with loads of evidence to dispel them, but I cannot stop anyone from believing in them. That choice is always up to the person in question. Are they willing to examine their firmly held beliefs with a critical eye? Are they ready to accept the evidence?
I can only share with you what I know, either through personal experience or diligent research. But I do hope I’ve been able to shed some light on some of the issues we, as autistics, face.
If you’d like to learn what it’s really like to be autistic, I have just the thing for you. I wrote a novel, “Night’s Reign” with an autistic priest as one of the main characters.
Click here to read the first 5 chapters so you can experience the world through Niels’ eyes.