6 (Questionable) Reasons Why People Fear Autism

Some disorders lead to terminal illness. Some involve severe, chronic pain. Some involve terrifying hallucinations. Autism involves none of these. Yet over the years, autism has been portrayed as one of the most frightening and upsetting possible diagnoses—a parent's nightmare. The reality, in the vast majority of cases, is very different. In fact, many people on the autism spectrum are intelligent, interesting, caring people who have many strengths and abilities. Others, while their disabilities are more significant, have very real talents and charm.

Father and son playing together
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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 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. On the other hand, 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.

Scary Realities About Autism

In rare 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 and entirely unrelatable.
  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 child carseats, 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 alcohol during pregnancy, and you can move away from chemical factories 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.
  3. 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 applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 yourself and your child. You may 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 likely will come not from your child but from others who may judge them (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 they are.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Masi A, Demayo MM, Glozier N, Guastella AJ. An overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder, heterogeneity and treatment optionsNeurosci Bull. 2017;33(2):183-193. doi:10.1007/s12264-017-0100-y

  2. Faras H, Al ateeqi N, Tidmarsh L. Autism spectrum disordersAnn Saudi Med. 2010;30(4):295-300. doi:10.4103/0256-4947.65261

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.