It’s Autism Awareness month, so here’s a few misconceptions…
- It’s an illness. ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is not an illness or disease but a group of symptoms and behaviours that affect how people experience and react to the world around them. If you’ve got it, you can’t ‘cure’ it (you’re born with it, though it might be diagnosed in later life) – but you can learn ways of managing some of the issues it raises.
- It’s a new condition – Autism was first described by scientist Leo Kranner in 1943, but the earliest description of a child now known to have had autism was written in 1799.
- It’s just in children. See point one. Children with ASD grow up to become adults with ASD, (though if it’s picked up early, they can learn to manage it in better ways).
- It’s caused by the MMR vaccine. This is based on a research study published in 1998 by Dr Andrew Wakefield. The study only involved 12 children and two major studies since have found no link. The MMR vaccine is usually given around the age of two; the symptoms of autism often start to become clear at around two and a half – hence the now discredited assumption that the one caused the other.
- People with ASD can’t have relationships. Many can – and do! There may be additional challenges e.g. in communication; but there are challenges with any relationship. Those with ASD can also have a great sense of humour (though it might be expressed in unique ways), and though some don’t like being touched, others may like hugs or gentle massage.
- It means you are Rain Man, (i.e. have mental super-powers or necessary limitations). ASD affects people in different ways – some folks can manage daily life with few problems, whilst others require support in every area. Some will have intellectual disabilities and/or talents, but many have normal to high IQs. As the saying goes, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.
- It’s just in men. ASD is thought to be much more common in men than women; though recent research suggests that many women are undiagnosed, or diagnosed much later in life. There are different theories for this – e.g. women with ASD learn to mask their symptoms from an early age; their symptoms are often different to those of men (so not picked up in tests); genetic differences mean girls are less likely to inherit it than boys. For more info see here.
- It means you can’t make friends. Those with ASD may face extra challenges with social engagement and communication, but they feel the same emotions; they just express them differently. Even if they can’t pick up on social cues easily, they can understand and respond to more direct communication. They can be very compassionate and care deeply about others.
- It’s caused by bad parenting. Total nonsense. It used to be thought that autism was caused by mothers who lacked emotional warmth (the ‘refrigerator mother hypothesis’). This has been soundly disproved. In fact, parents with ASD children often need extra reserves of patience, wisdom, strength and love!
- It’s a mental health issue. Really it’s a neurological issue. Folks with ASD process information differently to others. However, those on the spectrum often experience mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression because they feel like they don’t ‘fit’ and that the world is chaotic and confusing. Typical challenges for someone with ASD could include problems with social communication or interaction (like understanding the unspoken rules of conversation or how to ‘read’ other people); super sensitivity to sensory stimulation (lights, sounds, how clothes feel, smells, new tastes etc), a need for routine or repetition (for example, the foods they eat, what they wear, where they go or a particular hobby or interest with which they can become obsessed). They may also have co-occuring conditions like epilepsy, gastro-intestinal disorders, food sensitivities, and many allergies.
For more links and 10 tips on how to make church autism friendly, go here.