Top 7 Autism Myths and Facts

A diagnosis of autism is not the end of love and hope, nor is it a guarantee of extraordinary "savant" abilities. But media stories thrive on the most frightening, extraordinary, and heart-wrenching circumstances. Here are just a few of the myths perpetuated by TV, magazines, and movies—myths that undermine understanding and make it even tougher to manage real-world autism.

As you read through these myths, bear in mind that the vast majority of people with autism are neither geniuses nor severely disabled. They are also very different from one another. What they share are challenges in specific areas of functioning that are severe enough to make daily activities unusually difficult.

1

Autistic People Are All Alike

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Myth: If I’ve met an autistic person (or seen the movie Rain Man), I have a good idea of what all autistic people are like.

Fact: Autistic people are as different from one another as they could be. The only elements that all autistic people seem to have in common are an unusual difficulty with social communication. The expression "when you've met one person with autism you've met one person with autism" is absolutely accurate.

2

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 autistic people are extremely capable of feeling and expressing love, though sometimes in idiosyncratic ways. What's more, many autistic people are far more sympathetic than the average person, though they may not always express their sympathy in a typical manner.

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, most autistic people respond with true empathy.

3

Autistic People Don't Build Relationships

Two children looking outside of car window

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Myth: Autistic people cannot build solid relationships with others.

Fact: While it’s unlikely that an autistic child will be a cheerleader, it is very likely that they will have solid relationships with, at the very least, their closest family members. And many autistic people do build strong friendships through shared passionate interests.

There are also plenty of autistic people who marry and have satisfying romantic relationships. The key, of course, is for the person with autism to find peers with whom they share interests; often, autistic people need help with the complex work of developing and managing a social life.

4

Autistic People Are a Danger to Society

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Myth: Autistic people are dangerous.

Fact: Highly publicized news reports of individuals with Asperger syndrome committing violent acts have led to fears about violence and autism. While there are many autistic individuals who exhibit violent behaviors, those behaviors are 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. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people with autism are calm, kind, and willing to help out when asked.

5

Autistic People Are Savants

Young girl playing piano

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

Fact: It is true that a relatively few autistic people (fewer than 10%) are “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.

While some autistic savants are able to use their amazing skills for practical purposes, most cannot. There are several reasons for this. First, many of the skills simply have no practical application. Second, many people with autism "perseverate" on very particular skills; for example, a person might know all about the statistics of every Yankees player in history but have zero interest in the statistics of the Mets. Third, even those with practical skills may be unable or unwilling to use those skills to accomplish goals set by others.

By far the majority of autistic people, though, have ordinary or even less-than-ordinary skill sets.

6

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: It's true that some individuals with an autism diagnosis are nonverbal or nearly nonverbal. But the autism spectrum also includes extremely verbal individuals with very high reading skills. Diagnoses at the higher end of the spectrum are increasing much faster than diagnoses at the lower end of the spectrum.

7

Autistic People Have Little Potential for Success

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

Fact: Autistic individuals can achieve great things, but only if they're supported by people who believe in their potential. Autistic people are often the creative innovators in our midst. They see the world through a different lens and when their perspective is respected, they can change the world. To do that, however, they may need practical support and help with social communication.

If You've Met One Person With Autism...

There's a popular saying, "if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." Next time you hear a media story that presents autistic people as tragic or outrageously talented bear in mind that the story is about just one individual. The kid down the street or in your class is probably a very different person.

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