Understanding autism

Myths and misconceptions

Myths and misconceptions about autism

The lack of understanding can make it difficult for people on the autism spectrum to have their condition recognised and to access the support they need.

Misconceptions can lead to some autistic people feeling isolated and alone. In extreme cases, it can also lead to abuse and bullying.

Autism spectrum disorder comes with a whole host of myths and misconceptions.
It is a disorder that has been very much misunderstood in the past, from the concept of ‘refrigerator mothers’ to the idea that everyone with autism is like ‘Rain Man’.

And many myths and misconceptions continue today.
Here are the top five myths as we see them, together with an explanation of the real truth!

Myth – Autism is caused by vaccination

There have been many large scale, gold standard scientific studies which have been done and there is simply no scientific evidence to support this.
If it were that simple, we’d know by now. Autism is complex and seems to be caused by many different combinations of genes and environmental influences. Many parents have been seduced by the promise of a quick and easy answer, and the promise of a sudden halt to autism or even a quick cure.
Sadly, life is not straightforward but rest assured that enormous efforts are being made to tease out the genes and the other factors with the aim of understanding autism better and treating its symptoms in a positive way.

Myth – Kids with autism don’t want to make friends

In most cases, simply not true. There are some children and adults who are very aloof and who choose to keep away from other people to a great extent. But the majority of children and adults on the spectrum do like to socialise.

The issue for our children is that they don’t know how to socialise, and they often make mistakes. Being social is like a dance with very complicated steps and often requires quick thinking. It can seem too hard. But slow the dance down and explain the steps and our children can learn.

Being social may make people on the spectrum feel very anxious, especially if they have had failures in the past. But the desire to connect is often there, and it’s up to family, teachers and therapists to help our loved ones to socialise successfully.

Myth – Children with autism can’t learn

They absolutely can, once the rest of us learn to teach them well. The vast majority of children will improve with therapy, but it had to be effective therapy that is tailored for that child.

There are some individuals for whom learning in difficult, and for whom progress will be very slow.

Still, things can change and lives can improve, slowly and steadily, so long as family and teachers are persistent and using an effective method of teaching.

Myth - Autism is caused by bad parenting

Sorry but it just isn’t. Bad parenting will not help any child but it will not cause autism.

Many of us parents feel that we are not great at being parents because our children are not responding to us as a typically developing child does. This is so clear if we have several children and only one is on the spectrum.

However we can become excellent parents to all of our children. And, the better we understand our children, the more they can flourish.

Myth - Just like Rain Man, people with autism
have savant skills

Not all people can recite the phone book or tell anyone they meet on what day of the week they were born. Certainly some people can do some amazing memory feats, but this isn’t common.

Many children on the spectrum do share some strengths, such as being visual learners or having a good visual memory. These strengths can be used to help children navigate the world.

Science versus pseudoscience

When your child is first diagnosed with autism the news can be very hard to come to terms with. The road ahead can seem daunting and your child’s future uncertain.

At this point some parents may go seeking a ‘quick fix’ or cure for their child’s autism (read more about curing autism), which makes them vulnerable to pseudoscientific treatments.

So what is pseudoscience? Wikipedia defines it as ‘anything that pretends to be science but is not’. Simply put, it is ‘fake science.’

Good science is when you take a theory or idea and design an experiment to test if that theory is correct (or not) in a rigorous way.

One way we can do this is in a controlled clinical trial. A controlled trial compares the intervention we are testing (for example, a new type of therapy) with another treatment (or no treatment), in two closely-matched  groups — say, two groups of preschoolers with autism.

In a well-designed trial the only thing that differs between the 2 groups is the therapy, so if positive changes are seen only in the therapy group we can be reasonably sure we are seeing an effect from that treatment.

Ideally the trial should then be repeated at least once (preferably by a different group of researchers) to make sure the same results are found. Treatments that undergo this sort of rigorous testing are called ‘evidence-based.’

People who peddle pseudoscience will use lots of scientific words and their theories can sound quite convincing at first. But they aren’t so interested in testing whether their ‘treatment’ works or not. They may even tell you controlled trials aren’t necessary.

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The following are some other red flags for pseudoscience. Beware of any person promoting:

  • Any treatment they claim can cure autism. There is currently no cure for autism. In fact some people believe we shouldn’t be looking for one and the concept is highly offensive to many.
  • It makes no sense that a cure exists and leading autism experts and governments are somehow unaware of it. If there’s a major breakthrough in autism treatment it will be huge international news and everyone will know about it!
  • Treatments based on overly simple theories. Autism is a complex condition that affects brain wiring and is strongly linked to our genes. It’s extremely unlikely one single cause will ever be found.
  • There’s no good evidence that autism can be treated with elimination diets alone or that people with autism have a unique and abnormal biochemistry that requires treatment with expensive supplements.
  • Treatments they claim are effective for completely different, unrelated conditions. What do cancer and autism have in common? Almost nothing.  Yet there are treatments that are promoted as treatments for both conditions.
  • Treatments that rely completely on personal stories or testimonials to say they work. Only carefully designed studies can truly show whether a treatment works or not.
  • Any treatment that claims to have no side effects. Nothing is without side effects, and some treatments can actually be dangerous at worst and time wasting at best.
  • Conspiracy theories. Beware anyone promoting a treatment that “doctors don’t want to tell you about.”

Doctors, like everyone else, want the best outcomes for people with autism. In fact, many doctors are parents of children themselves. There’s no logical reason why they would hide effective treatments from you.

We strongly recommend you talk to a trusted health professional before committing to any treatment that ticks off one or more of these red flags.

Remember the wise saying:

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

While few of these treatments will actually be harmful to your child, they can certainly be harmful to your bank account. More importantly, chasing pseudoscience can distract you from pursuing evidence-based treatments that we know can help your child.

“We each have our own strengths, needs and difficulties. Stereotypes and false information can be hurtful and unsupportive”