3 Common Misconceptions About Autism

As an autism parent, do you cringe when you hear sweeping, inaccurate statements such as, “Oh, all kids with autism want to be alone all of the time,” “Don’t worry, she’ll grow out of this autism phase and be totally normal,” or, “You can’t expect your son to ever want to have friends” … ?

If so, we understand. Despite the dramatic increase in autism diagnoses within the last decade, there’s still a great deal of misinformation out there. Some myths are more damaging than others, but all autism myths contribute to feelings of isolation, frustration, and misunderstanding.

In this post, we’ll clear up several common misconceptions about autism spectrum disorders and give you a place to refer friends and family when they have questions.

Misconception #1: Autism is a new condition that didn’t exist prior to this century.

Reality: As the PBS article Autism Myths and Misconceptions notes, “Autism was first described by scientist Dr. Leo Kranner in 1943, but the earliest description of a child now known to have had autism was written in 1799.”

It’s true that from a clinical standpoint, the first formal psychiatric diagnosis of autism happened when Dr. Kanner diagnosed Donald Triplett of Mississippi in 1943. However, it’s also true that autism existed long before that. There’s considerable evidence to suggest that famous figures such as Einstein, Tesla, and Mozart were on the spectrum.

So while Donald Triplett was the first to be diagnosed, there were other children in other families who exhibited similar behaviors. Triplett is famous for being the first individual to receive an autism diagnosis, but he certainly wasn’t the only individual Kanner studied.

In their article Autism’s First Child, John Donvan and Caren Zucker write that Kanner arrived at the diagnosis of autism by “… Pulling together the distinctive symptoms exhibited by Donald and the eight other children—their lack of interest in people, their fascination with objects, their need for sameness, their keenness to be left alone … ”

On one hand, the first group of individuals diagnosed with autism had several key traits in common. Yet on the other hand, the behaviors of a single individual did form the foundation for the diagnostic criteria still in use today.

As Donvan and Zucker note, “It is not too much to say that the agreed-upon diagnosis of autism—the one being applied today to define an epidemic—was modeled, at least in part, on Donald’s symptoms as described by his father.”

In short, there has always been a tension between individual uniqueness and collective commonalities within the history of autism. Which brings us to our next popular misconception …

Misconception #2: Everyone with autism behaves in the same way as {Insert Famous Example Here: Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man, Temple Grandin, Max Braverman from the TV show Parenthood, etc.}.

Reality: While it’s true that individuals with autism do share common diagnostic traits, these traits express themselves differently from person to person.

Generally speaking, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in:

  • Social-interaction difficulties
  • Communication challenges
  • A tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors

However, since autism is a spectrum disorder, how these traits manifest varies widely between people. Social-interaction and communication challenges come in many shapes and sizes. For example, an individual can have tremendous linguistic ability and still have difficulty labeling and identifying emotions.

Likewise, repetitive behaviors can look very different from one person to the next. One individual may flap his hands repeatedly, while another may want to line up her favorite textbooks again and again.

As the saying goes, “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” In other words, when you meet one person with autism, you haven’t met them all, not by a long shot.

It’s also worth noting that savant syndrome (as popularized by Rain Man) is not the same as autism, though there is overlap between the two diagnoses. Savant syndrome is a much rarer condition in which individuals with some form of mental disability have certain areas of exceptional talent.

Misconception #3: Individuals with autism lack empathy.

Reality: Individuals with autism have as much or more empathetic ability as the next person. However, people with autism sometimes struggle to understand the emotional dynamics of common situations.

For example, they may see someone getting angry and start to laugh. The laughter may arise because they’re nervous, they don’t understand what’s happening, and the contorted expression on the other person’s face seems funny.

Often a seemingly inappropriate response indicates a lack of understanding rather than a lack of empathy. Once an individual with autism understands another person’s emotional reality, they will often respond in a kind, compassionate manner.

As we wrote in our post Autism Resource: What Is Theory of Mind?:

“One common misconception often associated with people with autism is that if they struggle with mind blindness, they also lack empathy. However, dealing with Theory of Mind issues [the ability to recognize and understand the thoughts and feelings of others] does not mean that an individual lacks empathy. In fact, just the opposite is true. 

Theory of Mind (ToM) deficits help explain why people with autism sometimes find it difficult to respond appropriately in social situations. What appears as uncaring behavior at first glance may be a simple lack of understanding.”

Help raise awareness by sharing the realities of autism

As we near the end of Autism Awareness Month, continue to engage and help promote inclusion and acceptance within the broader community.