It can be difficult to separate fact from myth when it comes to information about autism. This article dispels nine common myths about the condition.

As with any other condition, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions about autism. Some autism myths stem from misinterpreted facts about the disorder, while others are mere assumptions that people make due to lack of knowledge about the condition.

It’s essential to educate ourselves about autism so that we can support and understand people in our lives with this diagnosis. As we become better informed as a culture, we can offer better treatment options and those with autism can experience a higher quality of life.

1. Myth: Autism is a disease.

Fact: Autism is a neurological disorder.

Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because of the array of symptoms it can present, ranging from mild to severe. Autism is differentiated as a disorder and not an illness or disease because it cannot be cured and is an integrated part of an individual’s personality.

Conditions are differentiated between diseases, disorders and syndromes according to their etiology. Diseases are impairments of normal bodily functions as a result of internal or external factors. Disorder is a broader term that includes physical and mental health conditions.

2. Myth: Vaccines cause autism.

Fact: Vaccines and autism have no correlation.

The myth linking autism and vaccines was an unfortunate misinterpretation of study results by a British surgeon in 1997. Since that time, numerous follow-up studies have been conducted and this misconception was corrected. The surgeon responsible for the misinterpreted autism and vaccine studies later had his medical license revoked. Further investigation into the study revealed financial conflicts of interest and violations of professional ethical code. The journal in which the study was published withdrew the paper and the study was discredited. Unfortunately, the damage of this misinformation was already done. Over the decades since, medical and mental health professionals have been working to debunk the autism and vaccination myth within the general public.

Today, it’s clear that there is no link between autism and vaccination. More recent studies have shown that signs of autism are detectable pre-vaccination stage and there is growing evidence of autism being detected in utero. The myth of autism being caused by vaccination has caused well-intentioned but misinformed parents to make the decision to avoid giving their children life-saving vaccines.

3. Myth: Individuals with autism are geniuses.

Fact: The link between autism and genius is exaggerated and has been blown out of proportion by media portrayals of people on the autism spectrum.

People with autism can be extraordinarily intelligent, just as non-spectrum people can be intellectually gifted. The myth comes about as a result of the improper correlation between prevalence and using that as a factor for defining the disorder. In reality, about a tenth of the people with autism have savant abilities. These abilities can manifest in a variety of ways, including musical talents, exceptional memory and calculation skills, artistic abilities and preoccupation with a particular subject matter. While the myth of autism and genius may seem to be a victimless assumption, in reality, a misinformed public can result in false expectations and further misunderstanding of autism spectrum disorder.

4. Myth: Individuals with autism have mental disabilities.

Fact: Autism cannot be defined as a mental disability; it is a spectrum condition that can result in a variety of symptoms.

Autism is considered a developmental disorder since it is typically diagnosed within the first several years of life. People with and without autism spectrum disorder can have mental disabilities. However, a person with autism doesn’t automatically have a mental disability. As we seek a greater understanding of autism, it is useful to differentiate these varying terms to provide as much support and clarity as possible. Sometimes the term disability, when improperly used, can feel dismissive or condescending. Autism spectrum presents with such a wide variety of symptoms that it is inaccurate to refer to all people with the disorder as having a mental disability.

5. Myth: People with autism do not feel emotions

Fact: People with autism do have emotions and may struggle with emotional regulation or expressing feelings.

Many people with autism spectrum feel overwhelmed and highly anxious. Challenges with expressing these feelings can result in what appears to be flat affect or disconnection from emotion, but this is far from the truth. The internal experience and external behavior of someone with autism spectrum can vary greatly. This can result in a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding about how autistic people feel. It’s important to resist the tendency to make assumptions about someone’s internal experiences based on their external presentation.

6. Myth: People with autism don’t want friends.

Fact: People with autism want friends as much as anyone else.  

Because of challenges with communication and emotional expression, people with autism may struggle with making friends. The assumption that people on the autism spectrum don’t want friends can be damaging and lead to increased social isolation. People with autism may have a hard time initiating social contact as a result of the symptoms of the disorder. Difficulty with eye contact, challenges with interacting and appearing shy or unfriendly are all possible symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, which can lead to challenges in developing friendships.

7. Myth: Autism is caused by bad parenting.

Fact: Autism is a neurological condition and has no connection to parenting style.

While there is no known cause for autism, genes and environment are considered possible factors. The autism and bad parenting myth is a cruel and demeaning one that casts a negative light on the parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder. Parents of autistic children need support and understanding rather than misplaced judgment. Those raising children on the autism spectrum often face a host of barriers to accessing needed services, including financial barriers and limited health care resources.

8. Myth: There’s an autism epidemic going on.

Facts: Increases in autism diagnoses can largely be attributed to changes in diagnostic criteria.

Autism diagnoses have increased from 1 in 1,500 in 1975, to 1 in 59 in 2014. While this drastic increase may seem conducive to an “epidemic,” it is important to look at the changes in the definition of autism over the decades. Autism diagnostic criteria have expanded to include a spectrum of disorders; this inclusion of additional diagnoses under the umbrella of autism explains the increased rate of diagnosis.

Greater awareness of the condition is also a factor impacting diagnostic rates. As pediatricians, mental health professionals and parents become more aware of what autism is and how it presents in varying ways, the condition is more easily identified. This can mean early intervention and treatment, which means better treatment outcomes. On the surface, the rise in autism rates over the decades may seem to indicate an epidemic, but in reality it means the medical community has gained a better understanding of the disorder and what it means to have autism.

9. Myth: Autism can be cured.

Fact: There is no autism cure, but there are treatments that can help alleviate symptoms.

Treatment options such as SPELL, TEACCH and social stories as well as counseling and applied behavioral analysis can be useful interventions for autism spectrum disorder. Since autism spectrum disorder is a neurological and developmental condition, it is an integral part of a person’s hard-wiring. Since the condition cannot be cured, treatment focuses on managing and treating problematic symptoms across the lifespan. Early intervention and a variety of treatment options ensure a better outcome for those with an autism spectrum disorder.

Because of the diversity of symptoms, it is crucial for those with autism to have a wide array of services available for optimal success. Depending on the specific needs of an individual with autism, treatment options can vary significantly. Even though a cure for autism is not available, there are many ways to manage the condition and live a satisfying and enriching life.

Some who live with autism argue that they would not want to be “cured,” as this implies that there is something defective or wrong with who they are and how they function. Autistic Pride Day encourages people to look beyond initial assumptions and embrace individuals on the spectrum for all that they bring to the world.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Paula Holmes, LCSW
Paula Holmes is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and freelance writer who lives and works in midcoast Maine. She received her master's degree in Social Work in 2008 from the University of Maine. Read more
Sources “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Accessed May 24, 2019. “Autism.” Accessed May 25, 2019. “Vaccine Myths Debunked.” Accessed May 25, 2019. “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Accessed May 25, 2019. “Definition of ‘mental disability.” Accessed May 25, 2019. “11 Myths About Autism.” September 6, 2018. Accessed May 25, 2019.

Wright, Jessica. “The Real Reasons Autism Rates are Up in the US.” Scientific American, March 3, 2017. Accessed May 25, 2019.

Gander, Kashmira. “Autistic Pride Day 2016: Why We Are Proud To Have Autism.” Independent, June 18, 2016. Accessed May 25, 2019.

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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.