With increased awareness about autism, you’d think that there would be more understanding about it. Not so. When speaking with parents and educators, I’ve found that old myths die hard. It does make a kind of sense. Yes, there is more awareness that the disorder exists. There is some understanding of common symptoms. But many people go through life without knowing someone up close and personal who is on the autism spectrum. The portrayal of autism we see in movies and television shows is often superficial and incomplete.
Let’s take a look at common misunderstandings and the truth about people on the spectrum.
Myth: Children with autism don’t care about having social relationships.
Fact: Children with autism want very much to have friends. However, they often lack the skills and social awareness to make friends or to maintain friendships. It’s difficult, for example, for people with autism to look people in the eye when talking. In Western cultures, this is often interpreted as a lack of respect. But people with autism find it difficult to process what they are trying to say and what they are observing in another’s face at the same time. In order to stick to their train of thought, they need to “look” inward.
Another symptom that gets in the way of social relationships is their difficulty reading social cues. When talking about something that interests them, they may not notice when another person is bored or irritated or upset so they don’t respond as would normally be expected. They need help to develop those sensitivities and to learn how to respond appropriately.
Myth: Children with autism are savants.
Fact: Yes, some people with autism have a rare, special skill. I’ve known more than one person with autism, for example, who can tell you the day of the week you were born if only given your birth date. Others have the ability to play piano by ear or the ability to learn complex mathematical formulae even though they can’t cross the street safely or decide what is appropriate to wear given the weather. The fact is that only about 10 percent of people with autism have savant skills. The other 90 percent are like the rest of us, with a wide variety of talents and skills.
Myth: Children with autism aren’t emotional.
Fact: Yes, they are. One teen I know was called “Spock” by his classmates after the Star Trek character who always put logic before emotion. What they didn’t understand was that the name was actually appropriate. He was so frightened of how big his emotions were that, like Spock, he had to contain them by overcompensating with logic. Often kids with autism have difficulty managing their emotions. They may over- or under-express what they are feeling in an attempt to cope. Or they may misread the situation or what is being said and respond inappropriately.
Myth: All children with autism have flapping, rocking, spinning behaviors.
Fact: The rocking and flapping behaviors that are common in children with autism who are also cognitively limited aren’t always present in kids who are on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. It is unknown why some kids with autism engage in these behaviors. It may be a way to self-soothe or cope. It may be a feature of the brain chemistry. Kids with high-functioning autism often have learned to control the impulse or to do it in ways that are less socially embarrassing.
Myth: Children with autism are not creative.
Fact: They are not always creative in ways that others expect. It’s true that many people with autism have difficulty with imaginative play or fantasy stories. But they can be enormously creative around their special interests. After all, it takes creativity to come up with new applications for computers or new ways to solve mathematical problems, for example. People with autism can be highly inventive.
Myth: Children with autism aren’t successful in school.
Fact: It depends on the degree of autism. Remember, it’s a spectrum. Although 75 percent of kids with autism also are cognitively limited, the other 25 percent have average to genius intelligence. Tapping that intelligence can be challenging. Learning styles and behaviors may be incompatible with regular education.
Some students with autism have difficulty with transitions. Some have high interest (and are therefore highly successful) in some subjects but struggle with others. Some find the mechanics of handwriting so difficult that they give up trying on tests or in class assignments that require written work but can succeed if allowed to use a laptop. These are problems to be solved, not reasons for school failure. Special education supports can be provided to help them succeed.
Myth: Children with autism are rigid.
Fact: Some are. Some aren’t. The apparent need for routine, rules, and structure is a way for people who struggle with knowing what is required of them to stay safe. As children on the upper end of the spectrum develop social and practical skills and become more comfortable in being who they are, they can become less reliant on their rules for managing life.
Child drawing photo available from Shutterstock