Plenty of people believe harmful myths about autism. As a parent of a child with autism, it’s not your job to educate the world. But understanding what people think and why can help you create a safer space for your child.
These are the 10 myths about autism we hear most frequently, along with some ideas you can use if you hear these myths.
Myth 1: Autism Is a Mental Illness
Fact: Autism is not a mental illness. Instead, it’s a neurological condition.
A mental illness is a health condition that alters the way you:
A neurological disorder like autism changes the way you:
- Act socially.
Mental illnesses and neurological disorders clearly overlap. But defining autism as a mental illness is simply incorrect. It is a neurological condition that means your brain processes information differently.
Myth 2: Everyone With Autism Is Alike
Fact: Autism is a medical condition, not a personality trait.
People with autism come from all ethnic and economic backgrounds. They have different histories, different experiences, and different dreams. Autism is a part of their lives, but it doesn’t define everything about them. Saying that everyone with autism is alike is as odd as saying everyone with heart disease is alike. People are individuals and should be treated as such.
Myth 3: People With Autism Are Anti-Social
Fact: While some people with autism appreciate alone time, many others like friends as much as anyone else does.
Put these two traits together, and a person with autism might seem like they don’t want to reach out to others. They may even seem like they don’t like others.
In an understanding environment where differences are celebrated, a person with autism could be embraced or accepted, despite how they seem when they’re introduced. They may not make friends right away, and they may need time to explain how they feel to new people. But everyone can make friends.
Myth 4: People With Autism Don’t Experience Emotions
Fact: People with autism certainly can experience emotions. But they may show their feelings in their own way.
Consider how a neurotypical person might express anxiety. That person might:
- Talk. The person could explain what they are worried about and how it makes them feel.
- Move. The person might try to get away from whatever seems troublesome.
- Shake. The person might tremble with fear.
A person with autism can feel anxiety. But that person might engage in repetitive movements to soothe distress. Or the person might make loud noises that don’t seem like words.
Is this person feeling anxiety? Of course. But the way it shows on the outside may look a little different.
Myth 5: All People With Autism Have Special Skills
Fact: While some people with autism do have special skills, many others do not.
Movies like Rain Man associate autism with remarkable abilities. To an outsider, a person with autism should be able to count dropped toothpicks in a minute or recite the entire Declaration of Independence on command.
Researchers say as many as one in 10 people with autism have some kind of special skill. But that leaves out nine in 10 people who do not.
People looking for a special skill are often seeking what they think of as a “bright side” to autism. In reality, people with autism are wonderful and creative, whether they have exceptional skills or not. Reducing them to parlor tricks minimizes their humanity.
Myth 6: People With Autism Can’t Communicate
Fact: While some people with autism are slow to speak, many pick up advanced verbal skills. Others learn how to communicate via hand signals and adaptive tools.
Autism changes the way you learn and process information. When doctors run autism screenings, they look for a lack of verbal skills. It’s common for children with autism to speak later in life.
Researchers say about half of all children with language delays diagnosed at age 4 years went on to speak fluently later in life, and 70 percent could speak in simple phrases. Even children with no verbal abilities can learn to communicate with:
- Sign language.
- Adaptive tools (like an iPad).
- Body language.
Myth 7: Autism Can Be Outgrown
Fact: Autism is a neurological condition that persists throughout a person’s lifespan.
People with autism will always have autism. But they can learn skills, tools, and techniques that can help them to function in a world that’s not always made for them. They still have autism, but it’s not as easy for outsiders to spot the issue.
Myth 8: Bad Parenting Causes Autism
Fact: No parenting style can cause this neurological condition.
This is one of the most hurtful autism myths we’ve heard, and it’s also simply untrue. Children don’t develop autism because their parents love them too much (or too little). Autism is a neurological condition, not a protective behavior trait.
Parents can do a lot to help a child with autism. Support, positive reinforcement, and a supportive environment can help alter a child’s behavior. But nothing a parent does can cause the condition to appear.
Myth 9: Vaccines Cause Autism
Fact: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention debunked this myth.
A very old study suggested that autism symptoms were caused by vaccines. That study has been disproven, but copies of the research are easy to find on the Internet. All of those copies lead to continued disinformation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds no link between autism and:
- Antigens. Children with autism don’t have higher levels than children that don’t have autism.
- Ingredients. Nothing inside a vaccine can cause autism.
- Timing. Vaccines are safe and effective for most people.
Autism symptoms may appear around the same time as a child’s first vaccines. This timing is coincidental and nothing more.
Myth 10: We Are Living in an Autism Epidemic
Fact: More children are diagnosed with autism now than in years past. The reasoning is complicated, but it’s not due to rising medical problems.
No blood work or brain scan can diagnose autism. Doctors use behavior observations, oral tests, and other tools to find the disorder. But the number of children diagnosed rose 30 percent between 2008 and 2017. That’s likely due to:
- Increased awareness. People know what autism looks like, and they are more likely to take their children to the doctor when they see the signs.
- Changing diagnostic rules. In 1994, officials released a new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, including a broadened definition of autism. More people qualified than in years past.
- Education system changes. In 1991, the U.S. Department of Education notified parents that a child with autism qualified for special education services. That shift may have prompted some parents to take action.
In years past, doctors tried to limit how many children were diagnosed with autism. That is changing. Families can benefit. The more you know about your child’s mental health, the more you can do to help.
What Is Mental Illness? (August 2018). American Psychiatric Association.
Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet. (January 2022). National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Personality and Self-Insight in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. (January 2014). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Savant Syndrome: Realities, Myths, and Misconceptions. (August 2013). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Study Shows That Many Nonverbal Autistic Children Overcome Severe Language Delays. (March 2013). Autism Speaks.
Autism and Vaccines. (December 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Real Reasons Autism Rates Are Up in the U.S. ((March 2017). Scientific American.
It’s Time We Dispelled These Myths About Autism. (October 2015). BBC.