Common Myths about Autism Debunked and Explained

Page content

Autism is a mental illness or a type of mental retardation

One of the most pervasive myths about autism is that this condition is a psychological disorder or mental illness, or a cognitive disorder that causes mental retardation.

The truth is that autism is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means it is a biological disorder that affects brain development. The regions of the brain most affected by autism control communication, social behavior, and repetitive behavior.

Just like neurotypical children, children with autism have a range of different IQ levels, and contrary to the myth that autistic children have low intelligence, it is more common for autistic children to have at least average, and often above-average intelligence.

Autism is caused by childhood vaccination

In recent years a supposed link between autism and childhood vaccination programs has caused a significant amount of controversy. Some parents of autistic children believe that a chemical called thiomersal somehow triggered the development of their child’s autism. Those who believe in the link between thiomersal and autism point to the increase in diagnosis of autism in recent years, and point out that it coincides with the use of thiomersal in early childhood vaccination programs.

This controversy was sparked by Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who in 1998 published a study which claimed to show a link between autism and the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. However, this study was subsequently discredited due to serious design flaws, allegations of professional misconduct, and conflicts of interest. More recent studies have failed to prove a link between vaccination and autism.

Children become autistic because they have bad parents

Many people mistakenly believe that autism is a psychological disorder caused by bad parenting, or a condition that develops because a woman did “something wrong” while she was pregnant. Some parents of autistic children feel guilty and wonder if there is something they might have done to cause their child’s autism.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Researchers continue to delve into the mysteries of the condition, and one of the greatest mysteries is how and why it develops; however one of the few things that has been agreed upon is that parenting styles are not to blame.

Autism is curable

Some people believe autism is curable due to news reports about parents “curing” their child’s autism with a special diet or alternative medical treatment. While it’s true that some treatments do have a positive effect on some children with autism, there is no treatment that can completely cure the condition for all children.

There are treatment programs that can successfully treat and improve some of the symptoms of autism. For example, behavioral therapy programs can help a child learn social skills and language skills, to improve their ability to communicate with others. However, there are no treatments that can improve or otherwise modify the neural changes that autism causes, which means there is no cure.

Children with autism cannot learn or progress over time

Autism is not curable, but people with autism absolutely can learn new skills, improve cognitive ability, and progress in many other ways over time. As mentioned above, there are many behavioral therapy programs that help teach children with autism social skills and other skills to improve their ability to communicate interact with others. When these types of programs are implemented early in the life of an autistic child, the benefits can be very significant.

All people with autism have an exceptional talent

Many people with autism have an exceptional ability in one particular area. Some have an exceptional ability to memorize certain types of facts, have exceptional math ability, or have an exceptional talent in music.

This is absolutely not true of all people with autism, however, or even of the majority. In fact, only a small subset of people with autism have an exceptional talent. Just as with neurotypical people, those with autism differ in cognitive ability, and have a range of skills and talents.

People with autism have no emotions and don’t form relationships

People with autism often appear to be cold, uncaring, and unemotional, but this is not because they don’t feel emotions: they simply don’t always have the ability to express them in a way that others understand. Similarly, a child with autism might want friends, but might be unable to make friends due to lack of social skills.

Autistic children are very much capable of forming relationships with family and peers, but it can be a long and difficult process, requiring a great deal of patience. An autistic child might be afraid of being touched, or might have difficulty making eye contact with a parent, for example; but these outward signs don’t mean that a close and loving relationship can’t or doesn’t exist. It’s different from the relationship a neurotypical child might have, but it’s no less real.

The key in this instance is understanding that autistic people do feel emotion, and do desire relationships and interaction with others: what they lack is the ability to interact socially and express emotion in the way that other people do.

People with autism are violent or dangerous

All children tend to act out when frustrated, upset, tired, or angry, and the same is true of autistic children. Sometimes adolescents and adults with autism might act in a similar fashion but it doesn’t mean they are violent or dangerous, and it is very rare that such an outburst happens out of malice.

It might seem that there are increasing reports in the news of people with autism spectrum disorders (such as Asperger’s syndrome) committing crimes, but such reports are extremely rare, and the proportion of people with autism spectrum disorders who are genuinely violent or dangerous is extremely small: much smaller than the proportion of people in the general neurotypical population.


ABC News: 10 Myths about Autism

Nurse Practitioner Schools Blog: 10 Myths about Autism

Public Autism Awareness: Common Myths about Autism

Research Autism: Myths About Autism Spectrum Disorders

Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P.: Autism Myths and Realities