According to the CDC, autism affects 2.2 percent of U.S. adults, yet so many misconceptions surround the condition.1 From the idea that autistic people don’t want to make friends to the claim that all autistic people are gifted, these myths fail to accurately describe people living with this impactful developmental condition, because so many traits vary across the spectrum. In order to fully understand and support autistic people*, we’ve come up with a list of the 12 most common autism myths and misconceptions. For each one, we’ve gathered the most accurate autism facts to set the record straight.
What is Autism and Why Is It So Confusing?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of neurodevelopment disorders distinguished by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and difficulties with social interaction. The symptoms are often present from early childhood. Autism is confusing because it is a spectrum condition that affects people in different ways. For instance, some autistic people are non-verbal or have limited speech while others have very high language skills but may still struggle to pick up on social cues or tone of voice.2
The definition of autism is one that continues to evolve as more research emerges. While some people think the spectrum is too broad, we think that most autistic people share the challenge of being misunderstood. We hope by sharing these common myths, we can contribute to a greater understanding.
Myth: Autistic People Don’t Want Friends
While it’s true that many autistic people have difficulty with social interaction, it’s not true that autistic people do not desire friendships and intimacy like other people. Autistic people simply need friends who are willing to understand and support their social challenges.
Myth: Autistic People Can’t Express Emotion
Autistic people may struggle with reading body language and empathizing with another person’s feelings, but this doesn’t cancel out their own feelings. They feel happy and sad like anyone else, but they may express their emotions differently.
Myth: Autistic People Can’t Build Relationships
Autistic people form relationships with all types of people — neurotypical and autistic peers alike. Their interactions may sometimes look different from those among neurotypical people, but this doesn’t discount the value of their relationships. In a 2016 meta-analysis of 18 studies including 1,768 autistic children aged 8 to 12 years, researchers found that the majority of the children reported having a friend.3
Myth: Autistic People Are Prone to Violence
There is no connection between any autism spectrum disorder and violent aggression. Yet, many people who are unfamiliar with autism will push a myth like this one because they are afraid of people who are different. Sadly, the perpetuation of this type of myth often results in bullying, exclusion and the mistreatment of autistic people.
Myth: Autistic People Are Gifted
Thanks to the 1988 movie Rain Main, in which Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt plays an austic savant, many people believe autism correlates with giftedness or extremely high intelligence. While it’s true that some autistic individuals do have unique talents and gifts, it’s important to remember that the characteristics of autism vary from person to person.
Myth: Autistic People Are All Alike
The “spectrum” part of autism is crucial. One autistic person's capabilities and challenges are no indication of the capabilities and challenges of another autistic person. As one autistic woman writes in The Guardian, “Autistic people are not all superheroes, but we’re not all tragic, either.”4
Myth: Autistic People Prefer to Be Isolated
Being social and interacting in groups may cause anxiety for autistic people, leading them to isolate. The desire for intimacy often lives within autistic people, even when they take a passive role.
Myth: Autistic People Will Have Those Behaviors Forever
According to the book Behavioral Intervention for Young Children With Autism: A Manual for Parents and Professionals, behavioral intervention for children between the ages of two and five can have a dramatically positive effect on their behaviors for life.5 Studies also show that cognitive behavioral therapy can help autistic people learn to regulate their emotions.6
Myth: Autistic People Will Need Care Their Entire Life
Because an autistic child’s behaviors and limitations can change over time, it’s unfair to assume that all autistic people need care their entire lives. Many children with autism grow into adults with careers and families of their own.7
Myth: Autism Only Affects Children
While the characteristics of autism often get detected during childhood, there are over 5.4 million autistic adults in the U.S. today.8 Simply put, autistic children grow up and become autistic adults.
Myth: Autism Is a Result of Bad Parenting
Between the 1940s and 1960s, autism was blamed on mothers who lacked warmth, birthing the “refrigerator mother theory” which doesn’t hold up today.9 Research shows that autism is more likely a result of genetics and biology.10
Myth: Autistic People Don’t Speak
An estimated 40 percent of autistic people are nonverbal.11 For the other 60 percent, communication skills vary across the spectrum. While autistic people may communicate differently than a neurotypical person, those who are willing to listen find there’s so much more to their austic friend than these myths will have you believe.
Many parents of autistic kids have found that Brillia helps to relieve some of the common symptoms associated with this condition, especially when it comes to expressing emotions, mood regulation and controlling aggression. Find out more about how Brillia works here.
*Note from Brillia: Please note that we have consciously chosen to use the terminology “autistic person” and “autistic people” instead of “person with autism.” While we are aware of the debates that surround semantics, we like the way this autistic writer defended their use of identify-first language for the Autism Self Advocacy Network blog: “When we say ‘person with autism,’ we say that it is unfortunate and an accident that a person is Autistic. We affirm that the person has value and worth, and that autism is entirely separate from what gives him or her value and worth...When we say ‘Autistic person,’ we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person — that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something.”
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a certificate in Narrative Therapy. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.