Facts and Myths About Autism Spectrum Disorder

April is Autism Awareness Month.  While awareness of autism is growing, many misconceptions still exist about the disorder and the individuals diagnosed with it.  ​​We’ve provided answers to commonly asked questions regarding autism, its symptoms, and its causes.

What is autism?

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects about 1 in 44 American children. Due to the many levels, or spectrums, of autism diagnoses, it can be challenging for an outsider to distinguish an autistic person apart from a neurotypical one. Since the spectrum is broad, one autistic person may thrive in social interactions while others are nonverbal and more comfortable in close relationships. The varying degree of autism’s effect on a person’s day-to-day life also means that the level of support needed throughout the day varies depending on the person. 

What causes autism?

The neurological disorder is caused by differences in the brain. What changes the brain function and the way it develops is not known. However, genetic conditions and environmental factors can play a significant part in how severe the symptoms are. 

What are the symptoms of autism?

As mentioned above, autism comes in many forms. An autistic person may differ from a neurotypical person in how they interact, socialize, and may also have restricted or repetitive behaviors. Speech delay is also very common. Some behavioral traits may include: avoiding eye contact, limited facial expressions, little interest in peers, not noticing when others are hurt or sad, lining up objects and getting upset if the order is changed, getting upset by minor changes in routine, unusual reactions to smells, taste, or looks, and word repetition. Some other characteristics common in autistic people can include: anxiety, delayed language development, delayed cognitive or learning skills, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Autism can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. However, many signs are more likely to be detected by 2 or 3 years of age. Autistic people with more subtle characteristics/behaviors are sometimes diagnosed at even older ages. 

Do vaccines cause autism?

No. There is no evidence of vaccines and autism diagnosis being related. An old study from 1998 that linked childhood vaccines and autism has since been retracted. Today, there are multiple studies that confirm that there is no direct evidence to support the claims from the study in question. While it is not determined precisely how autism is developed, scientists have identified genes as a major factor.

Is autism caused by overprotective/poor/refrigerator parenting?

The outdated assumption that parenting decisions cause autism is not valid. While there is evidence of environmental factors impacting the severity of symptoms, there is no correlation between parenting styles and the diagnosis of autism. 

Are autistic people capable of feelings and love?

YES! While social interaction doesn’t always come easy for a person diagnosed with autism, most are able to form relationships and create a bond with others. Their way of expressing emotions may not be the same as a neurotypical person; however, that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of feelings. People with autism can build strong friendships, fall in love, and raise children. 

Is everyone with autism nonverbal?

No. While some autistic people can find communication and speech a challenge, many can use their words to communicate with their surroundings. That said, about 30 percent of autistic children speak fewer than 30 words.

Does everyone with autism have savant abilities?

No. Not all autistic people have savant abilities. It is common for people with autism to have a few skills that they perform at a higher level. These are called “splinter skills” and refer to the skills where their performance is more advanced than their overall abilities. Savant abilities are slightly more common with autistic people than the general population; however, only about 10 percent of people with an autism diagnosis show this type of ability. 

While there is no current cure for autism, it is important to remember that a diagnosis of autism is not a reason for despair. In many cases, early intervention and therapies reduce the severity of symptoms and help individuals to develop adaptive skills for communication, emotional regulation, relationship development and self-sufficiency to live full and happy lives.