9 Autism Myths That Need to Be Dispelled

April is Autism Awareness Month, and since around one to two percent of the world is autistic, that makes this a useful time to debunk some common myths about autism. After all, the autistic community is diverse and filled with a rich variety of lived experiences.

Before we delve into some popular misconceptions about autism, a note about language. Some people prefer to be called “autistic people” or simply “autistic,” using what’s known as identity-first language. They think of autism as an integral part of who they are — possibly even a source of pride and community solidarity. Others prefer to be called “people with autism,” using person-first language.

If you’re not sure which phrasing someone prefers, you should always ask; many people have strong feelings on the subject, and it’s important to describe people as they want to be described.

1. Autistic people are cold and unemotional

Popular depictions of autism often show people who are emotionless robots: They don’t understand the people around them, lack empathy and seem disconnected from the rest of humanity. But this simply isn’t true. In fact, autistic people are very empathetic and can experience intense — sometimes overwhelming — emotions. Some individuals have difficulty expressing their feelings, or may withdraw because they’re feeling too much. 

2. Autistic people can’t communicate

The stereotype of a “nonverbal” autistic person is also very common in media and pop culture. Think of someone who engages in constant purposeless movements like rocking, waving their hands or smacking their lips, who doesn’t speak and doesn’t appear to understand when spoken to. In fact, autism is a spectrum.

Many autistic people are highly verbal communicators — sometimes even multilingual. By contrast, others are more reticent to speak or may not communicate verbally, but that doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. Some use sign language, communication boards, and other tools to talk with the people around them. The issue is not that someone can’t communicate, but that the people around them don’t establish communication.

3. “Stimming” is dangerous or bad for autistic people

Autistics refer to behaviors like rocking, flapping one’s arms or interacting with objects in their environment as self-stimulation or “stimming” –see the stereotypical autistic above. Historically, many people have tried to suppress stimming, sometimes even with physical restraints, or by punishing autistics for these natural behaviors.

There’s nothing wrong with stimming, and it can actually help people stay focused and present. And if you think only autistic people do it, have you ever tapped your foot restlessly, played with your hair or toyed with a pen?

That said, some forms of stimming can be dangerous, such as those that cause self-injury. In these cases, autistics may work on finding alternative ways of stimming that allow them to express themselves with less risk of injury. Restraining people, yelling at them or punishing them won’t help autistics stop self-harming, though.

4. Autism was rare, but now it’s everywhere

Some people think autism burst into the public sphere in the middle of the 20th century, when doctors first began identifying patterns of cognitive development that were eventually defined as autism. In fact, autistics have been around for a while.

And the increased prevalence that people like to blame on “refrigerator mothers,” vaccines, pollutants and a variety of other factors? That’s the result of better access to screening and diagnosis. Autism has always been there; it just wasn’t identified.

5. Autistic people are too literal or have no sense of humor

Remember that autism is a spectrum: Depending on where along that spectrum someone lies, they may indeed process information very literally — but also laterally. Autistic people can make logical leaps and inferences that aren’t always apparent to neurotypical people. Some prefer communication in very clear, literal ways to avoid the risk of confusion. And some don’t find neurotypical humor all that funny — but that may have more to say about the comedian than it does the autistic. And yes, autistic people do have a sense of humor.

6. All autistic people are savants

The autistic savant is another pop culture favorite: the shy, withdrawn weirdo who’s strangely good at something oddly specific. Maybe it’s memorizing every train route in the world, doing complex math without a calculator or accurately identifying incredibly minor variations in photographs and paintings.

About 10 percent of autistics do have these skills, but most don’t; though some autistic people have developed an incredible depth of knowledge, skill and experience in one or more areas of interest — just like neurotypical who are super passionate about a topic.

7. Autistic people are violent

As society deals with its violence problem, autistic people are sometimes identified as culprits. Some even say autism makes people naturally predisposed to violence, but that’s not true. What people may perceive as violence or “acting out” is sometimes simply surprise, frustration or displeasure about a situation. Autistic people aren’t inherently more violent than anyone else.

8. Autistic people are mentally ill

Not that there’s anything wrong with either, but autism is a cognitive disability, not a mental health condition. That said, many autistic people also have mental health conditions — like anxiety and depression — at a rate higher than the general population. Accurately identifying these conditions and helping people decide how they want to manage them will help autistic individuals live fuller, happier lives.

9. We need a cure for autism

Many organizations are pushing for a “cure” for autism, an initiative that worries autistic self-advocates. The body of research on autism shows that it’s complex, with a number of contributing factors from genetics to environmental conditions. But self-advocates argue that autism is simply part of natural human diversity. It’s always been around and always will be — and the focus should be on social supports to help people live their best lives. That includes campaigns to break down misconceptions and stigma about autism so neurotypical people can learn more about living with members of the autistic community.

Some autistic people find therapies and treatments helpful — like talk therapy to help with anxiety, or occupational therapy to help with motor skills. Access to a range of options for those who want them should always be available, but self-advocates want to make sure autism isn’t “cured,” because that would mean erasing them from existence.

Photo credit: Allen Sheffield

91 comments

Clare O
Clare O5 months ago

good work, carers, it is tough for you

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Clare O
Clare O5 months ago

th

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Clare O
Clare O5 months ago

stimulating themselves often stops a child from listening to a teacher or carer and distresses them and can hurt them.

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Ingrid A
Past Member 5 months ago

thanks very much

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Carole R
Carole R5 months ago

Thank you for this important information.

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hELEN hEARFIELD
hELEN h5 months ago

tyfs

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Marie W
Marie W5 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Cindy S
Cindy Smith9 months ago

so sad,
I feel sorry for people

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill10 months ago

There is a cure, it’s vitamin A. Our son’s doctor discovered this.

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Cate S
Cate S10 months ago

Thanks - good reminders. People with ASD vary as much or more than neurotypicals.

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