Autism: Myths and facts

From the TUC handbook, Autism in the Workplace

Beware of stereotypes; they can overlook people’s individuality, and lead to mocking and bullying.

‘Autism is one of those trendy ‘conditions’ that everyone seems to have these days.’
This is a commonly-heard view, but an inaccurate prejudice which undermines the very real experiences of people with autism and their friends and families.

‘Autism is just an excuse for bad or anti-social behaviour.’
This is another commonly-heard view, but again, an inaccurate prejudice. ‘Bad behaviour’ can just be unusual or eccentric behaviour which may not harm anyone. Behaviour that does cause difficulties may be the product of distress, in a situation that does not take into account the needs of a person with autism eg. sensory overload, change to routines, unkind comments. 

‘Autism is a disability.’
Yes, autism is a disability, and people with autism are entitled to the support, protections, welfare benefits etc that disabled people should have.
However, many autistic people assert that autism is not just or always a disability, it is a difference, and that it has positive aspects that are often overlooked.
Using the social model of disability, we can see that society disables people with autism.

‘Autism is a learning disability.’
Autism is not in itself a learning disability, but it can often be accompanied by learning disability. It is estimated that 60–70 per cent of people on the autism
spectrum have a learning disability.

‘Autism is a mental illness.’
Autism is not in itself a mental illness. Autistic people may be more vulnerable to developing mental health problems, due to distress caused by social conflict, sensory overload, misunderstandings, discrimination and other factors.

‘Autism is a tragedy.’
Autism can certainly have a big impact on individuals and families, who can face great difficulty and distress. However, portraying autism as a ‘tragedy’ can have very negative consequences for autistic people.

“Negative media coverage and deliberate pity campaigning have created the public opinion that autism is a “tragedy”, and that people with autism have no hope of achieving anything.
“The majority of autism fundraising is currently generated using “pity” campaigning, suggesting that autism is tragedy, disease, or epidemic that needs to be stopped.
“This “tragedy” view of autism is extremely damaging to autistic people … It causes employment discrimination, it worsens social isolation, and it leads some parents to give up on helping their children, in favour of holding onto a false hope of a cure.
“Autism isn’t a tragedy, or a side-effect of genius – it’s a difference to be valued.”
Aspies For Freedom

‘Autistic people are like that bloke in Rainman.’
Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbit was based on Kim Peek, who was probably not autistic! He did have a neurological condition, and was a ‘savant’ (meaning that he could memorise and recall a remarkably large amount of information). Some autistic people may be like Raymond, but autism is a spectrum, and many are not like him.
While some people on the autistic spectrum may have ‘special talents’ or unusual, striking abilities, it is unfair to expect all autistic people to be like this, or to treat their abilities like ‘party tricks’.

‘Autistic people are of low intelligence.’
No. Autism is a spectrum, and includes people across the range of intelligence.

‘Autistic people are unable to empathise with others.’
People on the autistic spectrum are often thought to be unable to empathise.
However, it may be more accurate to say that autistic people empathise differently from the way that neurotypical people do.
One theory is that autistic people lack ‘cognitive empathy’ (the ability to predict others’ intentions), but have ‘affective empathy’ (the ability to share others’ feelings) and ‘compassionate empathy’ (the desire to help others). 

‘Autism mainly affects boys and men.’
Many more boys and men than girls and women are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
However, these statistics may be skewed by diagnostics being geared towards autistic traits that show themselves more often in men/boys than in women/girls. Socially-constructed ideas about gender, and about what is ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ for boys and girls to do, may also influence who gets diagnosed with autism.

‘Autistic people are weirdos with no social skills.’
This is a judgemental view that labels and stigmatises people. It is based on a narrow view of ‘social skills’ centred on neurotypicality.
Dismissing people in this way can prevent them getting support with social interactions. This view detracts from employers’ and institutions’ responsibility to adapt to and engage with people with autism.

‘Once you have met one person with autism, you know what autistic people are like.’
Autism is a spectrum; autistic people are individual and differ from each other. Once you have met one person with autism, you … have met one person with

‘Autism is caused by vaccinations and other chemicals.’
The theory that the MMR vaccine caused autism has been discredited. 
There have been similar theories concerning other vaccinations, lead, and other substances, but none has yet gained general scientific endorsement.
The fear caused by this theory led to many parents not having their children vaccinated, and eventually to higher rates of measles. In Swansea in 2012-13, a measles outbreak saw more than 1,200 people fall ill, 88 visit hospital and one person die. It is a reflection on society’s fear of autism that so many people were prepared to expose their children to this risk in order to ‘avoid’ autism.

‘Autism runs in families.’
Scientists are still not certain of the cause of autism, but believe it may be an interaction of various factors, including genetic predisposition.

‘If there is no cure for autism yet, we should prioritise developing one.’
There is no cure for autism. 
Many people would welcome progress in alleviating the more distressing aspects of autism. But many of these could be alleviated by better support, services and understanding from society; an end to prejudice and discrimination; and an acceptance that humanity is neurologically diverse.
Many people with autism do not want to be cured, seeing their autism as a difference with positive aspects, and wanting support and inclusion not a cure.
Many autistic people are also concerned that the search for a cure is detracting from support and campaigning for social change.

‘There are medications, therapies and treatments for autism.’
There are no medications to treat autism. People may use medications to treat conditions that may be associated with autism e.g. depression.
There are various therapies, treatments and support promoted to people with autism or their carers. Some are helpful, such as speech and language therapy, learning support assistants, housing support, specialised medical services, and employment support services. But there are others which many people feel are unproven or even harmful e.g. electro-convulsive therapy, aversive behavioural therapies, restraints, restriction of non-harmful stimming and even exorcism.

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