Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that looks quite different from person to person. However, it is often characterized by symptoms including, but not limited to, slow language development, cognitive delays, issues with social development, sensitivity to various stimuli (loud noises, smells, textures, flavors, light, temperatures, etc.), and unusual communication styles. Numerous harmful myths have arisen about ASD, and in this blog post, we will debunk 6 of the most common falsehoods about the disorder.
1. Autism is caused by bad parenting styles.
Parents who suspect or have received confirmation that their child is on the autism spectrum may experience several conflicting emotions. Parents may feel relieved to put a name to the symptoms that their child has been showing as they can better understand the disorder and how it can be managed. At the same time, parents can feel distressed or guilty as they may begin to ponder one of autism spectrum disorder’s greatest myths: that ‘bad’ parenting styles can lead to a child’s neurodevelopmental disorder. This distress may be exacerbated due to the fear of external judgment leading to questions like: “Will others think I am a bad parent because my child was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder?”. While this emotional rollercoaster is not uncommon for those parents receiving information about their child’s ASD diagnosis, parents can rest assured that how they have raised their child did not lead to their child’s condition.
Although researchers have developed several theories favouring nurture as the driving factor behind ASD, it has been found that parental styles do not cause neurodevelopmental disorder (Crowell, Keluskar & Gorecki, 2019). However, according to Crowell et al., “parental behaviour can also enhance development in ASD and parents play a role in many interventions” (2019, para.1). With this notion in mind, parents should recognize that feeling grief or negative emotion over an ASD diagnosis for their child is normal. Still, their focus moving forward should be on pursuing appropriate treatment for their child and learning how to best support them.
2. Individuals living with Autism Spectrum Disorder do not have feelings and are unable to show affection.
Another long-standing myth about autism spectrum disorder is that those who have the disorder do not have feelings and cannot show affection. This idea is false; those with ASD have emotions and can display affection. Analysis of several studies in the domain of emotional dysfunction and its relation to autism spectrum disorder show high variability within the population of those with ASD 2. Some individuals with ASD have no issues expressing their emotions and recognizing the feelings of others 2. At the same time, some individuals with ASD have a condition called alexithymia that can occur in conjunction with ASD, making it difficult for these individuals to process their emotions and the emotions of others 2. Alexithymia, which occurs in varying degrees of severity, occurs in 40%-65% of the population diagnosed with ASD 3, 4. Those with alexithymia are aware they are experiencing an emotion but often cannot put their finger on which emotion it is 5.
Further, those with alexithymia’s difficulty processing the emotive cues of others may cause complications in social situations where they may not respond in a way that is considered appropriate in the context 5. This notion is particularly significant in receiving and giving affection to others as individuals with ASD and alexithymia may not know how to respond to affectionate verbal communication or physical cues 5. Another symptom of ASD is sensitivity to certain noises, sights, and feelings. Affectionate advances may overstimulate some people with ASD, leading them to avoid giving and receiving affection altogether 6. However, just like there are individuals with ASD who do not experience difficulty with emotion, there are also individuals with ASD that have no issue giving and receiving affection 6. To summarize, each individual with ASD experiences the disorder differently. It is not accurate to assume that an ASD diagnosis involves a lack of emotion or ability to display affection.
3. All individuals on the spectrum have special talents.
In movies or television, those with autism spectrum disorder are often portrayed as individuals with special or ‘savant’ skills. While studies have found that approximately one-third of those with ASD have a ‘savant’ skill, it is not a general characteristic of the disorder 7. While the media’s highlighting of the talents of some with ASD can be seen as something positive, for many with ASD, this is a stereotype that has proven to be quite irritating 7. Those with autism who do not have savant skills may be left disheartened, asking themselves, “Why can’t I be a genius?”. For this reason, it is critical to avoid labeling everyone with ASD as an individual with mind-blowing skills.
4. Individuals living with Autism Spectrum Disorder avoid social contact.
Another myth surrounding autism spectrum disorder is that those with ASD avoid social contact. Much like the neurotypical population, some individuals with ASD do not have a strong desire to socialize with others, while others with ASD crave social interaction. However, for those individuals with ASD seeking social engagement, the prospect of navigating social engagement with others, particularly ‘new’ people, may be overwhelming 8. Those on the autism spectrum may find it difficult to know how to behave or what to say in a given social context, making it challenging to build and maintain relationships 9. Those with ASD can often overcome social difficulties and build fulfilling relationships over time by putting in the effort to build social skills and by receiving proper support from others 9.
5. Autism Spectrum Disorder can be outgrown or cured over time.
The false notion that autism spectrum disorder can be outgrown or cured over time can have harmful consequences. For example, suppose a child receives an ASD diagnosis, and their parents adopt the idea that the disorder can be outgrown or cured. In that case, they may not receive the proper developmental support while growing up 10. Conversely, the myth can “lead to a lifetime of the autistic person perceiving themselves to be a failed neurotypical person rather than a successful autistic person” (Jones, 2019, para.28). It is not uncommon that an individual is masking their outward ASD symptoms if it appears that they have ‘outgrown’ it 10. Masking is often emotionally draining to those with ASD and can lead to a range of issues, including low self-worth 10. Autism spectrum disorder is managed over the individual’s life, and, with proper support, those with the disorder can thrive.
6. Autism Spectrum Disorder is caused by vaccinations.
Perhaps one of the most notorious myths about autism spectrum disorder is that it can be caused by vaccinations. There have been numerous research studies attempting to prove this hypothesis; however, each found no evidence of a link between vaccinations and development of ASD 11, 12.
If you, or your child, suspect or have received a diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder, Insight is here to help. Please click here to learn more about our services related to autism spectrum disorder: https://insightpsychwp.wpengine.com/counselling/autism-spectrum-disorders/
- Crowell, J. A., Keluskar, J., & Gorecki, A. (2019). Parenting behavior and the development of children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Comprehensive Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2018.11.007
- Bird, G., Cook, R. Mixed emotions: the contribution of alexithymia to the emotional symptoms of autism. Transl Psychiatry 3, e285 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2013.61
- Pellicano E, Stears M . Bridging autism, science and society: moving towards an ethically-informed approach to autism research. Autism Res 2011; 4: 271–282.
- Berthoz S, Hill EL . The validity of using self-reports to assess emotion regulation abilities in adults with autism spectrum disorder. Eur Psychiatry 2005; 20: 291–298.
- Young, E. (2019, February 22). For people with alexithymia, emotions are a mystery. Spectrum News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/people-alexithymia-emotions-mystery/
- Catalano, N. (2020, November 11). Autism, Touch, and Affection. Spectrum of Hope. https://spectrumofhope.com/autism-touch-affection/
- Happé F. (2018). Why are savant skills and special talents associated with autism?. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 17(3), 280–281. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20552
- Autism Speaks. (n.d.). Social Skills and Autism. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/social-skills-and-autism
- Autism Society. (n.d.). Social/Relationships. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/autism-through-the-lifespan/adulthood/socialrelationships/
- Jones, S. (2019, September 10). We need to stop perpetuating the myth that children grow out of autism. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/we-need-to-stop-perpetuating-the-myth-that-children-grow-out-of-autism-119540
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, December 1). Autism and Vaccines. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html
- Public Health. (n.d.). Vaccine Myths Debunked. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.publichealth.org/public-awareness/understanding-vaccines/vaccine-myths-debunked/