Autism myths and misconceptions

I saw a mother of an autistic child post in response to an autistic self-advocate that “any autism information is good, even if it’s bad, because it brings awareness to autism”.

Not true.

There is a lot of autism misinformation on the internet, which causes a lot of harm instead of raising autism awareness.

There are also a lot of things people don’t know about autism because of these myths and misconceptions, which makes being autistic a little harder.

Galaxy, a black calico cat, laying on a fluffy white pillow inside a wooden cubby, giving what looks like a side eye

1. Autism is a mental health disorder.

Autism isn’t a mental health disorder or mental illness; it’s a neurological and developmental disorder.

2. There is an autism epidemic.

There is NOT an autism “epidemic”. More people are being diagnosed as autistic in recent years due to the surplus of information available on the web about autism.

Autism was never the problem; a lack of proper information about autism was the problem. Today, stigma surrounding autism diagnosis and autistic people is a problem that affects autistic people around the globe.

Some autistic adults choose not to seek or complete the diagnostic process for fear of being persecuted simply because of their autism.

The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, for example, is a program by the CDC to track autism data. At least eight US states require doctors to report to this registry, putting autistic people at risk for prejudice.

Being autistic is risky all over the globe. An autism diagnosis can

  • result in your kids being taken away or not being permitted to adopt
  • prevent you from moving to another country
  • lead to your rights being taken away/ignored

We don’t have an “autism epidemic”; we have an ableism epidemic.

3. You have to put the person before their autism.

The idea of putting the person before their autism sounds great for neurotypical people, but it isn’t the same context as identity-first language.

Person-first language (PFL) is

  • “person with autism”
  • “person with disabilities”
  • “person with brown hair”
  • “person with lesbianism”

Identity-first language (IFL) is

  • “autistic”
  • “disabled”
  • “brunette”
  • “lesbian”

There is no need to be verbose in order to “put the person first”. The concept of putting someone before their diagnosis is what you do with illnesses; autism isn’t an illness.

It’s also what you do when you need to remind yourself that the person is, in fact, a person, instead of an object. Ironically, autistic children and adults are often perceived as objects or property caregivers can “make” do things — this concept stems from Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) origins, where people approached autistic children as if they weren’t even “real people yet”.

Research supports my claim that most autistic people do prefer identity-first language.

4. Autism doesn’t define autistic people.

Autism does define some autistic people. Not every autistic person feels this way, but many autistic people do feel their autism is a huge part of who they are.

My autism defines me in a lot of ways. This isn’t me “succumbing” to my diagnosis, but me embracing it.

5. Vaccines cause autism.

The myth that vaccines cause autism started from Andrew Wakefield’s falsified research, and that’s it.

From there, society attributed vaccines to autism because they noticed something “different” about their child after having a particular reaction to shots.

There are two things you need to know about autism if you’re not autistic:

  1. Autistic people may experience the “fever effect” when sick, where they seem non-autistic instead.
  2. Even if we can’t articulate something, we might be aware of something different happening within our bodies.

Non-autistic people often only consider external stimuli; however, autistic people are often aware of — and dealing with — both internal and external stimuli.

I know I behaved differently after getting the COVID shot and booster. With other shots, too. It’s like I’m more sensitive to all the sensory stimuli around and within me.

Rather than positing the vaccines being the problem, I wonder if perhaps the issue is instead with the parents — tired as they are — looking up side effects to vaccines their kids were given, finding out a lot about autism, and not realizing what they were like before.

Because they are actively looking for autistic traits, they see autistic traits.

And because so many sites make autism out to be something terrifying and horrible, vaccines are easier to blame than considering what autistic traits they themselves might have and learning how to embrace neurodiversity instead of fearing it.

6. Autism is caused by poor parenting.

Sigh, no. This myth goes back to the refrigerator mother theory, posited by a dude who had only ever seen autistic patients who had abusive mothers.

It’s another way to shame tired mothers in desperate need of support, rather than prioritizing support and resources that would help tired mothers.

Although this theory was quickly dismissed way back when, society perpetuated it.

Back then, autism was referred to as “child schizophrenia”, so I’m unsure whether Leo Kanner truly worked with schizophrenic children or if they were all autistic. 💁‍♀️

7. All autistic people have savant abilities.

The autistic people worth celebrating, in the eyes of society, are the ones who do or did extraordinary things with extraordinary talents.

Non-autistic society has long used autistic savants for inspiration porn, to shame and invalidate themselves into trying things despite their exhaustion or disinterest.

I used to be a genius at mathematics. I was going to major in maths alongside education. I dreamt of writing and publishing my own maths book.

My first bout of autistic burnout took all of that away. I can’t do more than elementary maths.

Along with the savant concept is giftedness. Most “gifted” children are autistic and/or have ADHD.

Assuming or wanting autistic people to have savant abilities romanticizes this ideal way autistic people should be. It’s dehumanizes us.

8. People with autism lack empathy.

Autistic people don’t lack empathy or “Theory of Mind”.

Actually, the double empathy problem explains this better:

Non-autistic people struggle to empathize with autistic people due to different perceived life experiences, and vice versa.

If an autistic person experiences something that a non-autistic person has not and would not because they’re not autistic, the non-autistic person perceives the autistic person is lying.

Likewise, autistic people can’t imagine going through life not affected by the sensory aspect of their collective surroundings.

Autistic and allistic people experience life extremely differently from each other. While autistic people may be more open to accepting different perceived life experiences, allistic people are typically not.

9. Autism is the same as antisocial personality disorder.

Autism has zero to do with antisocial personality disorder.

10. Autistic people don’t experience love.

All autistic people experience live. This assumption is based on your interpretation of their behavior, which is your perception and not necessarily reality. 

This one goes back to the double empathy problem, where allistic people are typically incapable of empathizing with autistic people because they don’t perceive life the same way.

Neurodivergent people often express love and admiration differently, adding at least five more love languages to the neurotypical existing five.

11. Autistics can’t hold down a job.

Autistic people struggle to “hold down” jobs because employers romanticize autism and the workplace does not nurture or accommodate autistic people.

Autistics are more likely to speak up about things allistics don’t speak up about, and allistic supervisors perceive autistic people as arguing or trying to one-up them instead of seeking context or understanding.

This disconnect leads to autistic employees being punished for how their brain works — or fired, if they don’t quit first themselves.

Autistic people’s ability to hold down a job has less to do with their autism and more to do with a lack of understanding and acceptance.

12. Autism can be cured.

There’s no cure for autism. There also doesn’t need to be.

Autistic people who want cures typically do because they hate their autism, whether as a result of self-hatred or societal encouragement.

While autism would still be disabling in a society that naturally accommodated autistic people, societal stigma would alleviate much of the burden that is being autistic.

ABA doesn’t help us; it hurts us. The sole goal of ABA is to turn autistic people into compliant puppies that are more palatable for our allistic counterparts — so they won’t shoot at us or be driven to murder us under the guise of saving us.

The cure for ignorance is education, awareness and acceptance — three things autistic people need more than a “cure”.

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