Autism Myths and Facts
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder whose symptoms vary widely from person to person. Children and adults with ASD may learn, socialize, and navigate the world differently.
While the autistic community represents more than 2% of the population, many people misunderstand the condition. Experts have worked to correct misconceptions around disability so that we can better understand the challenges faced by people with ASD.
Myth: Girls are generally not autistic.
Girls are less likely to be diagnosed with autism, but it’s still common, says Catherine Lord, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in autism at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than girls. While it’s also true that girls are more likely to be misdiagnosed when they have ASD, boys are even more likely to be born with it.
ASDs can also run in families. “There is a genetic component,” Lord says. You are more likely to be diagnosed with ASD if you have a sibling who has it or even a second-generation relative like an aunt or cousin, for example. Children who have fathers of advanced paternal age are also more likely to be diagnosed with ASD, although the risk increases only slightly, Lord says.
Myth: Everyone’s experience with ASD is similar.
Autistic people have a range of symptoms and a range of experiences. Arianna Esposito of Autism Speaks notes that the skills, behaviors and challenges of people with ASD can vary greatly from person to person. “Every individual’s experience with autism is different because ASD refers to a wide range of conditions,” she says.
ASDs cause differences in the brain that aren’t well understood, and symptoms can differ significantly from person to person, Esposito says. No two people have the same life experiences because their symptoms can be so different. “If you know someone with ASD, that really means you only know one person with the condition,” she says.
In 2013, autism changed its name to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5). The new name was chosen to include people with varying degrees of disability.
Myth: Most people with ASD have severe intellectual disabilities.
No. In the United States, most people with ASD do not have severe intellectual disabilities and are able to function relatively normally in society, Lord says. But this is not true on a global scale. In countries like India where they don’t have specialist support systems and are less likely to diagnose it except in extreme cases, people with ASD almost exclusively have intellectual disability.
It is also a myth that most people with autism have a striking skill such as a photographic memory or prodigal musical skills. “It does happen, but it’s pretty rare,” says Lord
Myth: Vaccines cause autism.
No, said Esposito, there is absolutely no proof of a link between any vaccination and an increased risk of ASD.
Myth: Something in the environment causes more children to develop autism.
Autism is more often diagnosed than it used to be. According to the CDC, 1 in 44 children in the United States has ASD, up from 1 in 88 a decade ago. But the increase is probably not environmental.
Most evidence points to a few factors, Lord says. First, the way we characterize children with autism has changed, and disability now includes a host of conditions, including autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome. Greater awareness of the disease also increased the likelihood of a diagnosis. These two factors are probably responsible for most of the increase.
Myth: You can only be diagnosed as a child.
No. In fact, more and more people are being diagnosed with autism in adulthood as our understanding of the condition improves. Indeed, unlike a condition such as high blood pressure, Lord says, there is no biological marker used to diagnose ASD. As a result, many people are misdiagnosed as children with conditions like ADHD and anxiety because doctors don’t realize ASD is the underlying cause of their symptoms.
Lord also says his research has shown that some people can hover in the ASD realm, but as they age, their symptoms become more pronounced due to their life circumstances.