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Autism Myths

Over the years, there have been many myths that have been circulating about autism's causes, characteristics, and its outcomes. It is important to understand not all information out there is accurate and therefore, some things said about autism are simply not true. It is important for parents, teachers, and other interested parties to know where the information is coming from and when in doubt, follow up with a professional to get the facts.

Autism was first diagnosed in the early 1940s by Leo Kanner. Very little was known about the disorder, and it was seen as a psychiatric condition. More often than not, parents (particularly mothers) were blamed for their children's autism. This brings us to our first myth.

Autism Myth #1: Parent and caregiver actions are to blame for autism.

This is simply not true. While all of the causes for autism are not yet definitively known, we know beyond a doubt that autism is a brain-based disorder, with genetic factors playing a role. It is the result of physical differences in the way the parts of the brain are "wired," and how those parts communicate or work with each other.

The result of this line of thinking is that parents (who are already struggling to deal with their child's disability) are burdened with a sense of guilt and possibly even shame, thinking that they have possibly done something to create their child's autism.

Autism Myth #2: There is a cure for autism.

Currently, there are many treatment approaches for autism. Some of them (such as Applied Behavior Analysis) have a widely recognized and well-documented base of evidence supporting their use for teaching new skills and addressing problem behaviors. Others have very little evidence to support their use, but are starting to show promise as more information is gathered.

Additionally, there are several medications that have been shown to be effective in reducing problematic behaviors and in increasing attention to task. Even more interventions have no evidence supporting their use but remain popular anyway.

To date, there have been no validated cures for autism. Autism is a brain-based disorder. The interventions that have been shown to be effective have only been effective in addressing some of the symptoms of autism, teaching new skills or reducing problematic behavior. Some interventions have been reported to be so successful for some individuals that these individuals no longer meet the diagnostic criteria of autism.

However, none of these interventions have been able to change the brain. Until then, no cure exists. Hope can be gained with these two facts. First of all, some interventions have been extremely successful in helping individuals with autism cope with their disorder to the point that it only minimally impairs their ability to function and achieve. Secondly, there are scientists who are making huge strides in understanding the true causes of autism, which may eventually lead to a legitimate cure, perhaps even in the lifetimes of the children being diagnosed today.

Autism Myth #3: Children with autism have to engage in inappropriate behavior.

It is very common for children with autism to engage in inappropriate behavior such as tantrums, aggression, or self-stimulatory behaviors. Because they are so common, most people tend to attribute the reasons for these behaviors to the child's autism, and therefore believe these behaviors will always be a part of their children's lives. It would be more accurate to say that a child's autism plays a key role in problematic behaviors but doesn't necessarily cause them.

When looking at problematic behaviors, the most effective approaches realize that most problem behaviors can be traced back to the communication deficits associated with autism. Most problem behaviors serve a purpose for the individual with autism to meet a need for which the individual doesn't have the language skills to express. Usually, problem behaviors serve to gain one of three things: access to tangible items or preferred activities; some kind of approach, assistance or interaction from another person; and escape from or avoidance of certain types of situations.

Behavior analysts have been extremely effective at reducing or eliminating inappropriate behaviors by developing and implementing procedures that do three different things.

  1. Ineffective. This means you determine what the behavior results in, and make sure that the behavior doesn't work to serve that purpose any more.
  2. Inefficient. This means while the problem behavior no longer works to serve a purpose for the individual, you have taught an appropriate, easier way for the individual to gain what he or she wants or needs. For example, instead of engaging in tantrum behaviors to get extra time to watch TV, the individual is shown how to ask appropriately, either through speech, sign, or pictures before the problem behavior has a chance to occur.
  3. Irrelevant. Rendering a behavior irrelevant means doing things ahead of time to diminish the individual's need or desire to access the things that typically would result in problem behavior. For example, if problem behaviors occur as a result of difficult academic demands, the demands could be presented in such a way that easy tasks are interspersed with difficult ones, making escape less desirable.

(The preceding "Three I's" were coined by Pamela Wolfe, Ph.D.)

Autism Myth #4: Individuals with autism have greater ability to see, hear, or remember than typically developing people.

This myth is one that persists, more than likely, because of autism's portrayal in popular culture. Movies such as Rain Man and Molly have done a terrific job to raise the public's awareness of autism. However, their portrayals of individuals with autism were not representative of most individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

By many popular accounts, people with autism are shown to have abnormal hearing abilities or the ability to remember everything they see or hear with astounding precision. This is not entirely accurate. Individuals with autism have not been shown to have any greater degree of sensory acuity than other people. In other words, their vision and hearing abilities are as diverse as you would find in any random group of individuals. However, their focus might be directed toward things that we simply don't pay as much attention to, such as non-consequential sounds that are faint in the background as opposed to conversations that are happening right in front of them.

Also, a preoccupation with details sometimes leads individuals with autism to focus on less significant parts of an object as opposed to the object as a whole, functional thing. As a result of this difference in focus or attention, it is easy to assume they are able to see or hear things that others don't. However, it is usually simply a matter of where they place their attention.