Why Is Autism So Scary?

Autism is rarely as scary as it's portrayed to be

Father and son playing together
CaiaImage/Getty Images

There are many different types of diseases, disorders, and delays in the world.  Some are fairly benign, while others are downright terrifying. Some involve terminal illness. Some involve severe, chronic pain. Some involve terrifying hallucination. Autism involves none of these. Yet over the years, autism has been portrayed as one of the most frightening and upsetting possible diagnoses.

Scary Portrayals of Autism That Influence Public Opinion

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that people with autism can have mild or severe symptoms. They may also have a range of different symptoms, some of which are much more troubling than others. That reality, however, is rarely considered in presentations of "autism."

Those people who want to portray autism as a "difference" that can be as positive as it is negative are likely to speak or write about people with very high functioning autism: people who live close-to-typical lives or have extraordinary talents. Those people who want to make autism appear to be a terrifying disorder generally choose to write or speak about the most severe cases of autism (which are relatively rare), and to present parents of autistic children as isolated and unable to access support or help.

Over time, children with autism have been described in some very frightening ways. For example, autism has been described as a "life sentence" for parents, as a "stealer of children's souls," as a "destroyer of families." In a short film called "Autism Every Day" Sherry Tepper, then director of Autism Speaks, describes seriously considering driving herself and her autistic daughter off the George Washington Bridge rather than placing her daughter in a school for autistic children.

Scary Realities About Autism

In some cases, the experience of autism really is overwhelming, dangerous, and frightening. In most cases, however, the fear is out of proportion to the reality. Why, then, are so many people frightened of an autism disorder? Here are some facts that may explain otherwise unexplainable fears.

  1. Many of the symptoms of autism are outside others' experience. You can't just close your eyes, plug your ears, or sit in a wheelchair to get a sense of what it's like to be autistic. As a result, many people see autism as wholly "other," and people with autism (and almost any other mental illness or developmental disorder) as completely alien. Aliens, as we all know, are just about as scary to some folks as they could be (even if they're merely from another country!).
  2. The causes of autism are not well understood. In general, people like to feel that they can protect themselves and their children from illness and injury.  They use car seats, buy organic fruit, go to the doctor, and otherwise do everything they can to stay well.  But there's really very little anyone can do to avoid the risk of autism. Sure, you can avoid taking potentially harmful medications or drinking during pregnancy, and you can move away from plants that belch toxic fumes. But as most autism is of unknown cause, you may just wind up with an autistic child for no obvious reason at all.
  1. There is no treatment for autism that will "cure" the disorder. It's bad enough to have a bacterial infection, but at least you know that if you take antibiotics you'll almost certainly recover. But neither ABA nor special diets nor hyperbaric chambers will actually cure autism. A disorder without a cure (or even a treatment that will completely remediate the symptoms) is scary.
  2. Kids (and adults) with autism behave differently from other people. And if there's one thing experience teaches us it's the fact that differences can be scary. Children with autism are taught to avoid "unexpected" responses to others—not because they are in any way harmful, but because the "unexpected" (rocking, flapping, asking the wrong question, repeating the same words, etc.) frightens people.
  3. Parents and grandparents are often frightened by autism because they fear the worst for their child. They assume that their child will be left out, bullied, ignored, or even abused. They believe that after they die their child will be a helpless pawn in the world of government agencies. And they don't, in general, seem to believe that they can avoid this potential problem by planning for it.
  1. Some parents and grandparents are frightened by autism because they expect (or experience) negative judgments on their gene pool, their parenting, or their ability to discipline their child. These fears are reasonable: people are judgmental and will make unwarranted assumptions. Whether this is cause enough for serious anxiety depends, of course, upon the person being judged and how the judgment is communicated.

A Word From Verywell

If you're the parent of a child with autism, there are plenty of reasons to feel anxious on behalf of both yourself and your child. The future is suddenly less rosy, and your path may seem strewn with thorns. You will have to make unexpected changes in your lifestyle, and you'll have unanticipated expenses. In the vast majority of cases, however, all these changes are manageable, and support systems are available through schools, support groups, family, and friends. Much of the stress you'll feel (as you can see from the list above) will come not from your child but from others who judge him (or you). Take away others' power to make you feel bad about yourself or your child, and you take back your ability to love and enjoy your child for the person he is.