Autism 101: Busting Common Myths and Stereotypes

Autism is a highly misunderstood condition. Although most people are aware of its existence, much of society’s specific knowledge and understanding is still minimal. Additionally, stereotypes surrounding autism are pervasive and continue to promote harmful misinformation. In honor of April being Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, let’s bust some common myths and misconceptions about autism.

  • Myth: “People with autism don’t feel empathy.”
    • Fact: Some people with autism struggle with empathy, whereas others may experience hyperempathy – a deep sensitivity that results in an individual feeling the emotions of others as if they were their own, one which can often cause distress.

There are two main forms of empathy that are commonly recognized by researchers. Cognitive empathy is considered the ability to infer what another person feels and what they may be thinking. Effective empathy (i.e., emotional empathy) is when someone physically feels an emotion along with another person. People with autism tend to struggle most with cognitive empathy due to difficulties with perspective taking or being able to put oneself in another person’s shoes. On the other hand, many people with autism tend to have a significant amount of emotional empathy and can be very sensitive to surrounding emotions, as though they are soaking them up like a sponge (DeThorne, 2020; Fletcher-Watson & Bird, 2020). Sometimes this empathy may even extend to inanimate objects. For example, some people with autism may feel bad throwing a toy away because, to them, it feels like they’re hurting the toy’s feelings (White & Remington, 2019).

Many individuals with autism struggle with alexithymia, the inability to recognize or describe their emotions. Difficulties with emotion identification can also contribute to a seeming lack of empathy (Brewer et al., 2015). Furthermore, research has shown that the faces of individuals with autism and neurotypical individuals may simply convey emotion differently (Keating & Cook, 2020) (neurotypical is when someone has more “typical” neurological development or functioning; the opposite of neurotypical is ‘neurodivergent’, which encompasses not only autism, but also ADHD, dyslexia, and more). For example, when feeling sad, a person with autism may move their face into an expression that would not be used by most neurotypical people. Similarly, because the neurotypical person expresses their sadness in a different way from the individual with autism, the individual with autism might not recognize the neurotypical person’s sadness. However, just because a person doesn’t appear to be reacting in the way that is expected, doesn’t mean they aren’t able to empathize at all.

  • Myth: “All autistic people are alike, and you can tell when someone is autistic.”
    • Fact: Autism doesn’t have a certain “look.”

 Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that each individual with autism has a different combination of traits. This doesn’t make that anyone is “less” or “more” autistic; it simply means that each person has a different profile that is unique to them. In truth, anyone can be autistic, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Many individuals are diagnosed later in life or not at all. Additionally, many individuals with autism learn to mask their autistic traits to appear more neurotypical. This masking may consist of suppressing stims (otherwise known as self-stimulatory behaviors), forcing eye contact, scripting responses, and/or mirroring the behaviors of others during social interactions (Feder, 2021).

  • Myth: “Autistic people cannot or do not want to form relationships.”
    • Fact: Although individuals with autism may struggle with social interactions, this does not necessarily mean that they don’t desire deep connections with others.

 The Double Empathy Problem is a theory that explains how the social connections and relationships of individuals with autism are impacted (Milton, 2012). This theory proposes that both autistic and allistic (i.e., non-autistic) individuals may have difficulties understanding and feeling for one another due to their differing outlooks on and experiences of the world. Research shows that autistic-autistic connections are equally as efficient as allistic-allistic connections (Crompton et al., 2020). It is when the connection is autistic-allistic that social difficulties show up more noticeably. Furthermore, neurotypicals struggle to read the emotions of individuals with autism, which may also contribute to the social challenges attributed to autism (Edey, 2016; Shephard et al., 2016). Every person is different, autistic or not. Some people may desire one or two close friends, and some may want many. Regardless, having difficulty with something is not equivalent to not wanting it at all.

  • Myth: “All people with autism are intellectually disabled.” Or conversely, “All people with autism are savants.”
    • Fact: Intellectual disability is not part of the diagnostic criteria for autism.

 Many people underestimate the intelligence of individuals with autism simply because they are autistic. However, intellectual disability is not part of the diagnostic criteria for autism. Intelligence is also not dependent on whether or not an individual is able to speak. Many non-speaking people with autism are extremely intelligent, but because they are not provided with the right tools and accommodations, they are unable to effectively communicate. Regardless, intelligence should not be indicative of whether or not a person is human and deserving of respect. Some people with autism are intellectually disabled, some have savant skills, but all have a spectrum of strengths and difficulties just like everyone else.

  • Myth: “Autism is a mental illness.”
    • Fact: Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes differences in the way the brain is structured and the way it processes information.

 Although individuals with autism are more likely to have co-occurring mental health disorders (Rosen et al., 2018), this may be the result of living in a world that is not designed for them, rather than due to autism specifically. Individuals with autism are at higher risk of being bullied and are more likely to experience adverse life events. Additionally, cognitive rigidity, difficulties with emotion regulation, and intolerance of uncertainty can predispose autistic people to higher levels of anxiety and depression (Rudy, 2020). Autism itself, however, is a neurodevelopmental disability, not a mental illness.

  • Myth: “Autism can be cured or is something children will grow out of.”
    • Fact: There is no cure for autism. In fact, many people with autism find it offensive to suggest that there should be.

 Autism is not a disease. Autism is simply a difference in how the brain works. Likewise, autism isn’t something that someone can simply “outgrow” either. Although many individuals with autism learn to cope and mask their autistic traits as they grow older, this doesn’t mean that they are no longer autistic. Masking is simply the consequence of adapting to living in a neurotypical world, and too much of it can eventually lead to burnout.

  • Myth: “Allistic people have nothing in common with people who have autism.” Or conversely, “Everyone is a little autistic.”
    • Fact: Autistic traits are human traits (Robinson et al., 2011).

 Most of us can relate to disliking a certain taste, smell, or texture, or misinterpreting someone’s intentions. Although sensory sensitivities and social difficulties are considered hallmarks of autism, these experiences are common in both autistic and allistic individuals. In fact, one study estimated that up to 30% of people may have at least one of the traits associated with autism (Lundström et al, 2011). Having one or two traits doesn’t make a person autistic; rather, it is the combination and intensity of the traits that does. Assuming you have nothing in common with someone solely because they are autistic is a form of stereotyping, which can be inaccurate at best and harmful at worse. Likewise, saying “everyone is a little autistic” can invalidate the struggles that people with autism face by comparing them to neurotypical standards (“If it’s not hard for me, then you must be overreacting.”).

  •  Myth: We are in the midst of an autism epidemic.
    • Fact: Autism has always existed; it was just poorly understood.

 While more people are now being diagnosed, there is no autism epidemic. Rather, diagnostic criteria, education, and research have improved understanding of autism, which allows more individuals to be diagnosed and receive access to the supports they need to thrive (Gernsbacher et al., 2005). Previously, autism was thought to be a type of schizophrenia. Due to communication differences and presumed lack of intelligence, many children were historically labeled more generally as ‘feeble-minded’ and sent away to asylums. As research and understanding have improved, however, clearer diagnostic criteria and diagnoses have emerged.

  • Myth: ABA is the only therapy for autism.
    • Fact: ABA therapy can be incredibly harmful and even traumatic to children with autism.

 Although ABA is presented as the main therapy recommendation for autism, its creation stems from behavior modification techniques based on inhumane punishments. For example, early ABA therapy utilized methods such as withholding food and water and even administering electric shocks. Although its application has generally moved away from punishment and now appears to be fun and engaging, it still focuses on suppressing more harmless autistic traits and denies bodily autonomy (Lynch, 2021). For example, ABA therapy works to eliminate stimming, a behavior that individuals with autism engage in to help self-regulate – even when the stims themselves are not violent. ABA therapists also frequently ignore attempts to communicate, dismiss their clients’ feelings, and push children to engage in behaviors and situations that are upsetting and even painful for the individual, such as making eye contact or being subjected to high levels of sensory input without support tools. Ultimately, ABA’s primary focus is eliminating autistic behaviors entirely, rather than acknowledging a child’s individual needs and providing necessary coping skills.

People with autism are unique individuals just like everyone else. Some individuals with autism may benefit greatly from talk therapy approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), whereas others may require occupational and/or speech therapy. Some may benefit from all three. Ultimately, it all comes down to the individual’s specific needs. Individuals with autism should be provided with the resources and coping skills to thrive as they are, rather than being taught to fight the way their brain functions.

Written by Leah Wathen


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