Autism Myths and Facts

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability with symptoms that vary widely from person to person. Children and adults with ASD may learn, socialize, and move through the world differently. 

While the autistic community makes up over 2% of the population, many people misunderstand the condition. Experts have been working to correct misconceptions around the disability so that we can better understand the challenges faced by people with ASD.

Myth: Girls don’t usually get autism.

Girls are less likely to be diagnosed with autism but it’s still common, says Catherine Lord, PhD, a clinical psychologist focused on autism at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD compared with girls. While it’s also true that girls are more likely to be misdiagnosed when they do have ASD, boys are still more likely to be born with it. 

ASD can also run in families. “There is a genetic component,” Lord says. You’re more likely to be diagnosed with ASD if you have a sibling who has it or even a second generation relative like an aunt or cousin, for example. Children who have fathers of advanced paternal age are also more likely to be diagnosed with ASD, though the risk only goes up slightly, Lord says.

Myth: Everyone’s experience with ASD is similar.

Those with autism have a range of symptoms and a range of experiences. Arianna Esposito of Autism Speaks notes that the skill sets, behaviors, and challenges in those with ASD may vary widely from person to person. “Every individual’s experience with autism is different because ASD refers to a broad range of conditions,” she says.

ASD causes differences in the brain that aren’t well understood, and the symptoms can differ markedly from person to person, Esposito says. No two people have the same life experiences because their symptoms can be so different. “If you know one person with ASD, that really means that you know just one person with the condition,” she says. 

In 2013, autism got a name change, becoming autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5). The new name was chosen to include people with varying degrees of disability.

Myth: Most people with ASD have severe intellectual disabilities.

No. In the U.S., most people living with ASD do not have severe intellectual disabilities and are able to function relatively normally within society, Lord says. But this isn’t true on a global scale. In countries like India where they don’t have specialized support systems and are less likely to diagnose it except in extreme cases, those with ASD almost exclusively have intellectual disabilities.

It’s also a myth that most people on the autism spectrum have a striking skill like a photographic memory or prodigal music skills,. “It happens, but it’s quite rare,” Lord says

Myth: Vaccines cause autism.

No, says Esposito, there is absolutely no evidence of a connection between any vaccinations and an increased risk of ASD. 

Myth: Something in the environment is causing more kids to get autism.

Autism is more commonly diagnosed than it once was. According to the CDC, 1 in 44 children in the U.S. have ASD, up from 1 in 88 a decade ago. But the increase isn’t likely environmental.

Most of the evidence points to a couple of factors, Lord says. First, the way we characterize children with autism has changed and the disability now includes a host of conditions including autism disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome. More awareness surrounding the condition has also increased the likelihood of a diagnosis. These two factors are likely responsible for most of the increase.

Myth: You can only be diagnosed as a child.

No. In fact, more and more people are being diagnosed with autism in adulthood as our understanding of the condition improves. That’s because unlike a condition such as high blood pressure, Lord says, there’s no biological marker used to diagnose ASD. As a result, many people are misdiagnosed as children with conditions like ADHD and anxiety because doctors don’t realize that ASD is the underlying cause of their symptoms. 

Lord also says that her research has shown that some people may hover within the realm of ASD but as they age their symptoms become more pronounced because of their life circumstances. 

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