In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner first described Autism as related to children in the U.S. At the same time, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger was working with and learning from children in his country. Asperger's syndrome (referred to as a milder form of Autism) was named after him.
From that time until now, much has been discovered about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). However, myths continue to surround this condition which adversely impact children and families. Let's discuss and hopefully dispel three myths related to Autism...
1. Girls don't have Autism...
So, as the proud parent of a wonderful young lady with Autism, I must say that this is definitely a myth. However it is true that statistically, boys are more often diagnosed with Autism when compared to girls. The ratio is about 4.5:1.
Another factor impacting girls is severity of impact. Girls with more significant challenges (very limited speech, multiple repetitive behaviors, obvious behavior differences) are usually diagnosed as young children. However, girls with "high-functioning" Autism or "Asperger's syndrome" may not be identified until their teen or adult years. Why, you might ask? Likely because some symptoms of Autism are overlooked in girls as they may be seen as "typical girl behavior" if not investigated in depth. These include: allowing other girls to guide and speak for her at school, being quiet/shy, passivity in group settings, separation anxiety and limited conversation skills.
2. All individuals with Autism have a special skill...
If you are 40 or older, then you'll probably remember the 1980's movie Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman. This was one of the first U.S. movies bringing attention to Autism. However, as a result I believe that it has also perpetuated the myth that all individuals with Autism have a special gift, a savant-like quality that comes naturally without any formal training. Maybe phenomenal piano skills or the ability to memorize maps instantly.
Here is what research suggests: Only 10% of individuals with Autism have some savant abilities as compared to only 1% of the general population without Autism. These abilities range from “splinter skills” to superb savant skills. Typically, these skills are seen in math calculations, memory, art or musical ability. In our experience, our daughter has an amazing memory. She can remember events, names of people and experiences from long ago that most of us in the family have forgotten. However, I would say that this is a "splinter skill" and not a true savant-like ability.
3. Individuals with Autism do not like to engage with others...
It is true that individuals with Autism often prefer solitary play and struggle to interact with others at the same level as their "neuro-typical" peers. We noticed this early on in our daughter "Amazing Grace". At age three, she would easily spend time playing by herself and would not seek interaction with us, except when she had a need (such as food or toileting).
However, although the amount and quality of their engagement is definitely different, I believe that most individuals with Autism do have an interest in social interaction. Two factors that impact their engagement with others are 1. special/restricted interests and 2. limited perspective taking skills.
First, individuals with Autism typically have an area of special interest that takes much of their thought and energy. These interests may result in limited time or energy available for engaging with others. Also, the individual with Autism may find it as a "waste of time" to interact with those who don't share their special interest. This does not mean that they do not want friends or social interactions. It just means that they would prefer it on their terms so that the interactions are meaningful.
Theory of mind or "perspective-taking" skills also impact an autistic individual's ability to interact with others. If you have difficulty understanding what people are thinking and why, then interacting with them can be very challenging and overwhelming. As a result, many individuals with Autism shy away from social interactions for fear of not understanding something or making a mistake.
Let's erase Autism myths...let's support children and families with early identification, intervention and most of all, acceptance. Thanks for reading and sharing!
Interactive Autism Network (www.iancommunity.org); Roger Ebert's review of Rain Man (https://www.rogerebert.com/); Autism Research Institute (https://www.autism.com/)
Crystal Sanford, M.Ed., M.A. CCC-SLP has practiced in the field of speech-language pathology since 1998. As a licensed clinician and fellow parent, Crystal's passion is supporting families of Autism and related social language challenges. In her free time, she enjoys gardening and spending time with her husband and two children in San Diego, CA.