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April 11, 2019

Dispelling Autism Myths

What Parents of Kids on the Spectrum Want the Rest of Us to Know  

Joyce Knestrick, PhD, CRNP, FAANP 

April is Autism Awareness Month, and while it is a very common condition — one in 59 kids in the U.S. is on the spectrum — it is still remarkably misunderstood. Even those who know the basics of autism generally don’t grasp the nuances of the condition until they know someone who is affected, and even then, the range of experiences varies drastically.

That is in large part because autism is not a single condition, but rather a collection of conditions, known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). People with ASD generally have difficulty with social interaction and communication. Frequently, they also have restrictive or repetitive patterns of thought or behavior. Although people with ASD range dramatically in their symptoms, many are still high functioning. The complexities of ASD have been exacerbated by misinformation about what the disorder entails. Additionally, misinformation associated with the vaccination debate has led to confusion about what causes the disorder. These inaccuracies do a disservice to people diagnosed with ASD and their families.

For parents raising kids on the spectrum, the lack of clarity surrounding their child’s condition can be frustrating and, in many cases, damaging. Working with these families sheds light not only on the struggles associated with autism but on the challenges that stem from managing a condition that most people don’t fully understand.   

To help generate greater awareness about autism, here are the five common myths that families want you to know about the condition. These misconceptions don’t just influence diagnosis and treatment of people with ASD — they also affect how the rest of the world embraces them.  

Myth: Autism only affects boys.  
Fact: Autism is four times as prevalent among boys, but many girls also suffer, and in some cases, are overlooked because it’s not as common. In fact, girls with mild cases are diagnosed an average of two years later than boys with the same symptoms, which limits early intervention and lifelong outcomes. Additionally, girls may learn earlier to mask their symptoms, especially when it comes to expressing a desire to connect with others. This necessitates a shift in how we diagnose and treat girls on the spectrum.  

Myth: People with autism aren’t smart.  
Fact: Intellectual disability (having an IQ at or below 70) is a separate condition from autism, and being diagnosed with ASD does not infer low intelligence. Many people on the autism spectrum have normal to high IQs and excel in areas like math or music, while others have below average IQs.  

Myth: People with autism don’t feel emotion. 
Fact: People with ASD experience emotion, but they may communicate their emotions or perceive the emotions of others in a different way. Things like expressions, body language and tone of voice may be harder to interpret for someone on the spectrum, but they experience emotions and compassion just like everyone else.  

Myth: Autism affects only children.  
Fact: Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. I see parents all the time who have children diagnosed on the spectrum and realize that they also have a lot of the same characteristics. Through growing awareness and better understanding of the range of conditions associated with ASD, children and adults can access better resources and support services designed specifically for people on the spectrum.    

Myth: People with autism aren’t happy.  
Fact: People with autism can be very happy, but they are also at a greater risk for depression. People on the spectrum have a harder time identifying and communicating their feelings, and half of adults with autism will experience clinical depression in their lifetime. Better awareness will help to offset stigmas and create a more inclusive environment for people across the spectrum.   

There are roughly 1.5 million people living with ASD, and we all know neighbors, classmates, colleagues and friends who fall somewhere on the spectrum. Through greater awareness and understanding, we can identify and support people with ASD earlier and more comprehensively throughout their lives. It begins with my colleagues in the medical community, but societal acceptance is also a critical component, and those affected by ASD would benefit greatly if we all more readily embraced their path.