The beginning of April marks the beginning of Autism Awareness Month! During this month, we celebrate the strengths, dreams and goals of those in our world who have autism. This month is a great opportunity to learn more about the vast array of experiences of those who have autism and to learn how to be a better ally.
You may be thinking, I know a little bit about autism, but not a lot. You’re not alone. Our cultural awareness of autism has boomed since 2000 when researchers began tracking its prevalence. Though autism had been an official diagnosis since 1980, research was not authorized by the CDC until the turn of the millennia. With this research, scientists and clinicians were able to get a grasp on just how many people actually experience autism.
Of course, as this data came to light in the research world, pop culture began to craft its own discourse about autism. Some of the commentary is great, like the inclusion of autism in TV shows like Netflix’s Atypical. However, some commentary isn’t so great, and is even dangerous, like Jenny McCarthy’s spewing of misinformation which states that autism is caused by childhood vaccines (in case you were wondering – it’s not). With that in mind, let’s clear up some common misconceptions about autism.
Common misconceptions about autism
- Vaccines cause autism. Like I said before (but is worth repeating), vaccines do not cause autism. This misconception came from a deceptive study that was published in the 1990s that linked autism and vaccines. The study was so poorly done that it was deemed unscientific, and the physician who published it was stripped of his medical license.
- There is an autism epidemic going on. While it’s true that more people are being diagnosed with autism, this is not reflective of an autism epidemic. This actually means that clinicians and scientists now better understand autism and are more able to diagnose it connecting those who have it to appropriate resources.
- People who have autism cannot feel emotions. This misconception is likely due to the fact that people who have autism express and communicate emotions differently than people who do not have autism. In actuality, people with autism are able to feel all emotions, they may just communicate or express them differently. For example, someone with autism may not respond to a friend’s anger or sadness with immediately obvious empathy or concern, but do want their friend to be okay.
- All people who have autism are savants. Some media portrayals of autism like the movie Rain Man or the show The Good Doctor have led to the belief that all people with autism are savants. Someone with a savant skill is someone who has extraordinary mental abilities typically in music, art, math or memory. It is true that about ten percent of people who have autism have a savant skill, but that is still a minority of people with autism.
- Poor parenting can cause autism. This is a deeply unfortunate misconception that stems from a 1950s theory called “The Refrigerator Mom Hypothesis.” This theory guessed that mothers that were colder to their children were causing autism in their children. Though scientists have since rebuked this theory, some communities still believe it to be true.
What is autism?
Now that we know what autism isn’t, let’s get into what it actually is. As I said before, autism became an official diagnosis in 1980. That said, our actual psychological understanding of autism has changed as more research has been gathered. In 2013, the diagnosis of autism was updated to autism spectrum disorder in the DSM-V, the manual that clinicians use to make mental health diagnoses.
Autism spectrum disorder is included in the section of the DSM-V which describes neurodevelopmental disorders. Other disorders in this section of the manual include ADHD and learning disabilities. Someone with autism may identify as neurodivergent while someone who does not have it (or another neurodevelopmental disorder) may identify as neurotypical. Here are the main criteria that clinicians are assessing for when diagnosing for autism:
- Social communication challenges such as:
- Challenges in social-emotional reciprocity that may range from struggling to maintain a back-and-forth conversation all the way to being unable to initiate a social interaction.
- Difficulties in nonverbal communication such as not engaging in eye contact or not making any kind of facial expression while with others.
- Challenges in developing and maintaining relationships ranging from not being able to shift behavior in different social settings to having little to no interest in making friends.
- Repetitive behavior patterns or interests like:
- Stereotypical or repetitive movements like maintaining specific organizational patterns.
- Needing sameness in routines like eating the same foods every meal or wearing the same clothing each day.
- Having interests that are atypically intense or focused like having a deep connection to a movie character.
- Being over- or under-reactive to physical sensations like despising a certain texture or not feeling physical pain.
When describing symptoms for autism, it is important to remember that there is a broad spectrum of presentations. This means autism can be fairly mild or more severe. Also, a key factor in diagnosing autism is that these criteria need to have been present since childhood. That said, adults can still be assessed for autism if they believe they were missed in childhood.
How do I find out if I have autism?
The most common way to get assessed for autism is to work with a trained psychologist. Unfortunately, there is not a national database to direct people to psychologists in their area; however, Autism Speaks has created this resource to learn how to seek support. I recommend searching for “adult autism assessment”and your location. Additionally, if you or someone you love has autism, here is a page of resources that may provide needed support.