Autism spectrum disorders are surrounded by a haze of misconceptions, many of which are harmful for autistic children and adults. It’s time to straighten a few things out, and to spread the word on this complex series of cognitive and intellectual disabilities with a little good old-fashioned debunking.
1. Autistic people have no empathy. This is a common belief about autism; people think that because autistics are sometimes blunt or have difficulty navigating social norms, they aren’t empathetic. In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. Rather than not feeling enough, many autistics feel very intensely, and are easily overwhelmed by the emotions of those around them.
2. Autistic people can’t communicate. Autism spectrum disorders take a variety of forms, and some people with autism are nonverbal, but that doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. Some use communication boards and other methods to communicate with the people around them, but it requires patience to establish and maintain communication with them. Historically, people with more severe forms of autism were often isolated in institutions, but more modern treatment of autism encourages the use of therapy and other techniques to interact with patients and find a communication mode they feel comfortable with.
3. Autistic people are violent. This particularly damaging assumption about autism was widely bandied around in the aftermath of the horrific Sandy Hook shooting. In fact, autistic people are no more likely to commit acts of violence than anyone else, and when they are violent, self-harm is a much more significant concern. Autism and other disabilities also put people at an increased risk of violence, which means autistics have far more to fear about the world around them. Some autistic people do act out or have what are known as “meltdowns,” usually as expressions of frustration with themselves or situations, but this doesn’t equate to violence against other people; an autistic might throw objects in frustration, for example, without any desire or intent to hit people with them.
4. Autistic people are savants. Everyone who’s seen Rainman thinks autistic people are savants, capable of extreme feats of memorization and other amazing skills. While it’s true that some savants are autistic, not everyone with an autism spectrum disorder has these capabilities; some in fact have significant learning disabilities that require accommodations in the classroom.
5. Autism is the result of “refrigerator mothers.” This awful myth about autism has been largely debunked, but it’s still worth a mention. Some people used to believe that autism was caused by bad parenting, with a specific focus on cold or isolated mothers. The result was a lot of misinformation about autism, and terrible pressure on mothers who were already learning about how to navigate the world with autistic children. In fact, autism has no clear cause.
6. Autistics can’t make friends. Along with the belief that autistic people lack empathy comes the assumption that they live isolated lives and have difficulty making friends. Just like everyone else, though, autistics are perfectly capable of establishing and maintaining not just friendships but other kinds of relationships with the people around them. Isolating autistic people in a misguided attempt to protect them can be very harmful, just as it would be for anyone else.
7. Stimming (repetitive behavior like flapping or rocking), is undesirable and should be stopped. Stimming is familiar to many people who are at least vaguely familiar with autism — sadly, it’s often used in mockeries of autistic people, by individuals who think that making flapping gestures or imitative noises is funny. For autistic people, stimming is one way to deal with chaotic environments or stress, and rather than being something that should be suppressed, it can actually be a healthy method of personal expression and sometimes communication as well. Autistics who are forced to modify or hide their stimming behaviors can develop even more stress, which can interfere with focus, completing tasks of daily living, and other activities.
It’s important to be aware that the autism spectrum is vast, and that autism spectrum disorders can manifest in a huge variety of ways. Every autistic is different, and every one deserves respect and dignity. That includes not perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and correcting people who falsely repeat them.
Image Credit: An autistic surfer and buddy, by Christina Spicuzza