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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » Autism Myths Busted: Separating Fact from Fiction

Autism Myths Busted: Separating Fact from Fiction

It is estimated that more than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 adults and children with autism in the UK. An estimate is not the same as the number of autistic people who have a diagnosis as many autistic people might not have received a diagnosis or even know themselves. 

There are many myths about autism and these can be unhelpful to both people with autism and society in general. Myths about autism can be unhelpful as they:

  • Spread misinformation – myths often perpetuate false or exaggerated information about autism, leading to misunderstandings and misconceptions. This can result in people with autism being perceived inaccurately which can hinder efforts to provide appropriate support.
  • Can cause stigma and discrimination – myths can contribute to stigma and discrimination against individuals with autism and their families. When people believe inaccurate myths about autism, they may treat those with the condition differently or unfairly, which can lead to social isolation and exclusion.
  • Can cause barriers to acceptance and understanding – myths can create barriers to acceptance and understanding of autism within society. Myths may portray it as a defect or something to be cured, which undermines efforts to promote acceptance and inclusion.
  • Can impact on self-esteem – people with autism may internalise negative myths about themselves, leading to lower self-esteem and self-confidence. When surrounded by misconceptions about their abilities and worth, they may struggle to recognise and appreciate their strengths.
  • Create obstacles to accessing support – misinformation about autism can hinder people from accessing appropriate support services and resources. If people believe inaccurate myths, they may not seek out the help and interventions that could greatly benefit them or their loved ones who have autism.
  • Hinder research and advocacy – myths about autism can divert attention and resources away from meaningful research and advocacy efforts. Addressing misconceptions and educating the public about the realities of autism is important to promote understanding, support and opportunities for people with autism.

It can be difficult to separate facts from myths when it comes to information about autism. This article will discuss some of the common myths about autism.

Autism myths busted

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition caused by differences in the brain. It is a neurodiverse condition that impacts the way you think and respond to the world around you. Autism is a spectrum condition that affects people in different ways. Being autistic does not mean you have an illness or disease. It means your brain works in a different way from other people and it is something you are born with. Autism is a type of neurodivergence, which means that the brain of someone with autism works differently from that of someone without the condition. Neurodivergence is the term for when someone’s brain processes, learns or behaves differently from what is considered to be typical. Being neurodivergent was formerly considered to be a problem or abnormal; however, scientists now understand that neurodivergence isn’t necessarily an issue for the individual and that it can have a societal benefit. For further reading about neurodiversity in the workplace please see our knowledge base. 

Scientists believe there are multiple causes of autism that act together to change the most common ways people develop. There is still a lot to learn about these causes and how they impact people with autism. People with autism may behave, communicate, interact and learn in ways that are different from most other people.

Some autistic people need little or no support at all. Other people may need help from a parent or carer every day. 

If you have autism you may:

  • Find it difficult to communicate or interact with other people.
  • Find eye contact difficult.
  • Come across as being blunt, rude or not interested in other people without meaning to.
  • Find it hard to understand or empathise with how other people think or feel.
  • Find things like bright lights, unusual textures or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable.
  • Notice small details, patterns, smells or noises that others do not notice.
  • Become anxious or upset in unfamiliar situations.
  • Enjoy the same routine every day and become anxious if it changes.
  • Have highly focused interests or hobbies.
  • Like to plan things carefully before doing them.
  • Take longer to understand or process information.
  • Have repetitive behaviours or thoughts.
  • Find it hard to say how you feel.

Signs of autism in young children can include:

  • Not responding when you call their name.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Not smiling back when you smile at them.
  • Getting very upset if they do not like a certain taste, smell or sound.
  • Repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, or rocking their body.
  • Repetitive sounds.
  • Not talking as much as other children.
  • Not enjoying pretend play as much as other children their age do.

Autism can be harder to spot in girls as girls may hide some signs of autism by copying how other children behave and play, show fewer signs of repetitive behaviours and may appear to cope better in social situations. Studies have estimated that up to 94% of people with autism have or will attempt to mask their symptoms at some point during their lives. This can lead to long-term impacts. Autism masking may be used by people with autism to hide their symptoms. This may be done as a way to make more friends, or to be accepted socially and prevent unconscious bias. People may also mask their symptoms of autism because they don’t want to be treated any differently within society. They also may not be aware that they have autism, and are attempting to mask behaviours that are not the social norm.

Autistic people often have other conditions, such as:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Dyslexia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Epilepsy.

Myth 1 – Autism is a rare condition

Autism is not a rare condition. According to government prevalence surveys, more than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. It is important for people to know how many autistic people there are in order to highlight the number and diversity of autistic people. As autism understanding and awareness has grown, the estimated prevalence has also increased. As these figures are only estimates, it is not definite. Other surveys and international estimates suggest that autism prevalence is higher. The National Autistic Society thinks that the UK government should do more research into autism prevalence so that the figures are more accurate. 

Recognising autism as a common condition is essential to create a more inclusive and supportive society which values neurodiversity and ensures that people with autism can lead fulfilling lives.

Myth 2 – Vaccines cause autism

Vaccines and autism have no link whatsoever. The myth linking autism and vaccines was created because of study results by a British surgeon in 1997. Since that time, many follow-up studies have been conducted and the link has been found to be non-existent. The surgeon who was responsible for the misinterpreted autism and vaccine studies later had his medical licence revoked. Further investigation into the study revealed that there were financial conflicts of interest and violations of the professional ethical code. Unfortunately, the damage done by publishing the study was already done and people still believe that vaccines can cause autism. 

Even with the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, some parents still decide not to have their children vaccinated. An unvaccinated child who gets a preventable disease could become very unwell or even die. 

autism seperating fact and fiction

Myth 3 – All autistic individuals are savants

A savant usually refers to a person who demonstrates exceptional or genius-level abilities in a specific field, such as music, mathematics, art or memory, while often experiencing deficits or challenges in other areas, such as social skills or communication. It is a myth that all people with autism are savants. While some people with autism may have exceptional abilities or talents in certain areas, not all people with autism have extraordinary intellectual abilities.

The myth that all autistic people are savants is likely to arise from media portrayals and sensationalised stories that highlight extraordinary abilities in autistic people. Savant syndrome is a rare condition. Many autistic people have average or above-average intelligence and may excel in some areas, while others may have significant intellectual disabilities. It’s essential to recognise and celebrate the diverse strengths and abilities of autistic people without perpetuating stereotypes or myths.

Myth 4 – Autism can be ‘cured’

Autism is not an illness and there is no cure. Autism is where your brain has developed differently and therefore this cannot be changed. There are, however, certain things that can support someone who has autism and treatment options that can alleviate symptoms. 

Treatments for autism seek to reduce the symptoms that can interfere with daily functioning and quality of life. Autism affects each person differently, meaning that people with autism have unique needs and therefore different treatment needs. Treatment plans should involve multiple professionals and centre on the individual person. The symptoms of autism can be so diverse that it is important that there is a wide range of support options available to people. Even though a cure for autism is not available, there are many ways to manage the condition and people with autism can live fulfilling lives. Early intervention, behavioural therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and educational support are among the approaches that can be beneficial in helping people with autism develop skills and cope with some of the challenges associated with the condition.

People with autism may benefit from medications to manage specific symptoms such as anxiety, depression or hyperactivity.

Myth 5 – Autistic people lack empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings, thoughts and perspectives of others. It involves recognising what someone else is experiencing and being able to emotionally resonate with their situation. Sympathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It involves recognising and acknowledging someone else’s emotions and experiencing a sense of compassion or concern for their wellbeing, and offering support or comfort. 

It is a misconception that autistic people do not feel empathy. Some autistic people may appear to lack empathy or sympathy, but this is not the case for all autistic people. For people with autism who do appear to lack empathy, the reasons for this may relate more to social communication difficulties rather than a lack of underlying emotional response. Autistic people often experience difficulties with communication and interaction, which may affect how they respond to social cues. This may lead to a perceived lack of empathy in certain situations. Autistic people may have difficulty identifying the emotional behaviour of other people. For example, they may not recognise that a person is crying because they are happy rather than because they are sad, or they may have difficulty interpreting non-verbal social cues including gestures and facial expressions. 

All about autism myths

What should you do if you think you or your child may have autism?

If you think you or your child have signs of autism, you should speak to:

  • Your GP.
  • Your health visitor for children under 5 years old.
  • Any other health professional you or your child see, such as another doctor or therapist.
  • A special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) at your child’s school.

You should ask them about referring you or your child for an autism assessment. An autism assessment is where a team of autism specialists try to find out if you or your child are autistic. They will do this by asking about any problems you or your child are having, observing how you or your child interact with other people, and by speaking to other people who know you or your child well. This may include family, friends, your GP or your child’s teachers. An assessment is completed by autism specialists. It is the only way to find out if you or your child are autistic. A diagnosis can be useful for you to be able to understand your child’s needs and how you can support your child, to help you get support in terms of financial benefits, and to help you get support for your child in school. 

Even though 70% of children and young people with autism are educated in mainstream provision, the majority of teachers do not undergo autism-specific training. Supporting children with autism in the classroom requires a combination of understanding, patience and tailored strategies to meet their unique needs. It requires individualised approaches based on the child’s strengths and challenges. By implementing these strategies and fostering a supportive classroom environment, children with autism can reach their potential academically and socially.

If you or your child has a diagnosis of autism, you can seek support from:

National Autistic Society

Ambitious About Autism  

Autism Awareness Online CPD Course

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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