10 Popular Misconceptions about Autism

We wind up April as Autism Acceptance Month with another “Popular Misconceptions” article. (After you read it, take time to brush up on what actually works with autism, through our earlier posts on autism app lists, autism assistive technology, and autism apps sales.)

Misconception #1: All cases of autism look alike.

Truth: All cases of autism are due to brains that lack some natural ability to process the world outside themselves. However, this manifests in widely different forms: as the famous quote says, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” (A bonus misconception attributes this quote to Dr. Temple Grandin, the well-known professor and author. It actually comes from Dr. Stephen Shore, who—like Grandin—is a prominent autism advocate and personally on the autism spectrum.)

Misconception #2: Autism is always obvious, because it makes people nonverbal and prone to atypical sounds and gestures.

Truth: This applies only to those on the lowest-functioning end of the autism spectrum, sometimes called “profound autism.” While nearly everyone with autism is prone to some level of social isolation and restless fidgeting, many learn ways to blend into neurotypical society—sometimes to the point that autism is not suspected for years.

Misconception #3: Autism comes with low intelligence.

Truth: Although official statistics vary (probably because traditional education and testing are designed for neurotypical children), it’s generally agreed that about 40 percent of people on the spectrum have average or higher IQs. And the spectrum includes many high intellectual achievers: Temple Grandin has published over a dozen books and is ranked among the top ten college professors in the U.S. (Readers convenient to the Dallas area may want to check out her “Autism and Education” program on July 13.)

Misconception #4: Children “grow out of” autism.

Truth: Autism is a lifelong condition caused by natural brain wiring. Children often learn to manage it better as they mature, but the autism itself remains.

Misconception #5: Autism is something that can be “cured.”

Truth: Again, autism is a lifelong—and natural—condition for those born with it. It can be managed, modified, and worked with, but there’s no way to morph an autistic brain into a neurotypical one.

Misconception #6: Autism is something that should be “cured.”

Truth: Many people—not least those who belong to the autism demographic—heartily disagree with this idea. Society is beginning to learn that autism characteristics have advantages: stick-to-it-iveness, outside-the-box thinking, eye and memory for detail. When properly channeled, these traits can lead to large-scale beneficial achievements.

Misconception #7: Autism means that a person shouldn’t be expected to learn social skills.

Truth: Disagreeing with this is definitely not meant to suggest that anyone should be forced into an unnatural-for-them socializing mold. But an attitude of “this will be too hard for you, so don’t try” is just as bad, whether it comes from a biased authority figure or an overprotective parent. Everyone can, and should, learn social and other skills in healthy balance between individual accommodations and legitimate challenges.

Misconception #8: Autism comes with a gift for math and engineering.

Truth: It’s true that many successful professors, engineers, and computer programmers have autism. So do many people who do well in artistic careers. And, with or without autism, good in one area of math or engineering doesn’t necessarily mean good across the STEM board. (Temple Grandin, for instance, still “can’t do algebra” because it’s too abstract.)

Misconception #9: “Visual thinking” is a universal symptom of autism.

Truth: Again, it often is a symptom and often isn’t. (The writer of this post, for instance, is on the spectrum, very much a words person, fond of metaphor, not too gifted in remembering visual details—and, despite being a generally creative type, pretty good at algebra and math puzzles.)

Misconception #10: It’s disrespectful to say that someone “is autistic”; you should always say they “have autism.”

Truth: Actually, this isn’t a statement you can label “true” or “false” any more than you can assign a “universal” label to any well-known “autistic” trait. Many people are insulted by the “person-first” wording (“person with autism”), because they believe it treats a key aspect of their identity as an afterthought or a disease; and other people are equally insulted by the “identity-first” form (“autistic person”), because they see themselves as more than just autistic. The only sure way to know what any individual (or organization) prefers is to observe how they refer to themselves.

The key takeaway from all this: never judge anyone by stereotype. Always treat people as individuals, respecting what they want and what works for them. That’s good advice for relating to anybody!

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