7 Autism Myths and Facts

Autism diagnoses have increased dramatically since the 1990s, as has understanding of the disorder. Yet, myths and stereotypes persist (and are sometimes reinforced in the media, or on TV shows), serving only to undermine acceptance of those with the disorder.

Having autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for example, does not mean you have extraordinary abilities or are unable to form relationships—two common misunderstandings. Here's more about these and other myths.

1

Autistic People Don't Have Feelings

Father and son looking at tablet

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Myth: Autistic people cannot feel or express love or empathy.

Fact: The vast majority of people with ASD are capable of feeling and expressing love, though some do so in idiosyncratic ways. One reason for this is that autistic people may experience alexithymia, which is an inability to recognize and label the emotions they feel.

Some people with autism need help developing empathy because they have a difficult time guessing what other people might be feeling based on their body language. Downcast eyes or a turned back don't necessarily signal "sadness" or "anger" to a person with autism. Once another person's feelings are explained, however, many autistic people respond with true empathy.

2

Autistic People Can't Build Relationships

Two children looking outside of car window

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Myth: Autistic people cannot form solid relationships with others.

Fact: People with autism may find it difficult to build some kinds of relationships, but it is very likely that they will have solid relationships with, at the very least, their closest family members. Many autistic people also build strong friendships through shared passionate interests, and often have satisfying romantic relationships as well.

3

Autistic People Are a Danger to Society

Child smiling and looking up at the sky

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Myth: Autistic people are dangerous.

Fact: Some news reports about people with autism committing violent acts have suggested that autistic people are dangerous. According to a 2017 study, however, the majority of violent acts committed by people with ASD are among those who also have a diagnosis of conduct disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and it is those disorders to which the violence can be attributed.

Research has shown that people with ASD are on average more averse to causing harm to others when compared to those without autism.

When people with ASD do exhibit aggression, it is often directed toward themselves rather than toward others. In addition, aggressive behaviors from people with autism are almost always caused by frustration, physical and/or sensory overload, or similar issues. It’s very rare for an autistic person to act violently out of malice.

4

Autistic People Are Genuises

Young girl playing piano

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Myth: Autistic people have amazing "savant" abilities, such as extraordinary math or musical skills.

Fact: It is true that a small number of autistic people (fewer than 10%) are so-called "genuises," or “savants.” Examples include children who can memorize the phone book, calculate days of the week for years into the future, play a musical instrument like a virtuoso, or complete puzzles that stump talented adults.

The truth is that 31% of children with ASD have an intellectual disability, with an IQ below 70, 25% are in the borderline range (IQ of 71 to 85), and 44% have IQ scores in the average to above average range (IQ over 85).

While some autistic savants are able to use their skills for practical purposes, many cannot, as they simply have no practical application. Furthermore, some autistic people may be unable or unwilling to use those skills to accomplish goals set by others.


5

Autistic People Have No Language Skills

Boys talking in a schoolyard

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Myth: Most autistic people are nonverbal or close to nonverbal.

Fact: Approximately 40% of people with ASD are nonverbal or nearly nonverbal. But the autism spectrum also includes those who are extremely verbal and have very sophisticated verbal skills. Some may have limited useful speech, while others may speak fluently and intelligibly.

When a person's verbal abilities are limited or atypical, it can be hard for them to communicate—to express ideas appropriately so that others understand them. Challenges with using language and difficulty communicating are hallmark symptoms of ASD and typically go hand-in-hand.

6

Autistic People Are All Alike

pensive child looking through window

Christian Martinez Kempin / E+ / Getty Images

Myth: All autistic people are alike.

Fact: Autistic people are as different from one another as are any other group of people. The fact that it is called a "spectrum disorder" means that symptoms can vary significantly from person to person, as can the personalities and capabilities of those with ASD.

The only element that all autistic people seem to have in common is some level of difficulty with social communication.

7

Autistic People Have Little Potential for Success

Child jumping in field

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Myth: You shouldn’t expect much of an autistic person.

Fact: It can be difficult for people with autism to find regular, paid employment, depending on the severity of their symptoms. However, increasing numbers of employers are open to hiring adults with disabilities, including those with ASD. In fact, some companies actually go out of their way to hire people on the autism spectrum.

People with autism can achieve great things if they're supported by people who believe in their potential; they are, in fact, often the creative innovators in our midst, given their ability to see the world through a different lens.

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