The Biggest Misconceptions About Autism Spectrum Disorder

Let's set the record straight on some common myths about autism.

As many as one in 50 children in the United States have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, worldwide, about one percent of the population falls somewhere on the spectrum. ASD refers to a range of complex conditions that include social, communication and behavioral challenges, ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms of autism can be observed in children as early as 18 months and often appear before age 3. Research has shown that early detection and intervention are the best ways to improve quality of life for people living with autism, as well as their families and caretakers. Here are some common myths and misconceptions about ASD. And for some famous figures who have been diagnosed with the condition, check out Celebrities Who Are on the Autism Spectrum.

Autism is purely a social disorder.

kid with meningitis, classroom germs

Most people with autism exhibit physical symptoms such as repetitive body movements, rituals and fixations. They may also suffer from gastrointestinal issues, sleep disorders and seizures. Like all symptoms of autism, these can vary greatly in severity and type from person to person. And for another condition where facts are often misconstrued, check out This Is the Biggest Myth About Dementia You Need to Stop Believing.

People with ASD don't have empathy or feel normal emotions.

young couple sitting on a couch, apart from each other, girl looking upset and man on phone

Alexithymia is a condition in which people have trouble recognizing and communicating their emotions. About half of people with ASD also have alexithymia, which may explain why many autistic people struggle with emotions and empathy. However, studies show that many other people with autism display typical or even heightened levels of empathy. "There has been this perception that people with autism don't have empathy. And that's rubbish. And you can see that immediately as soon as you meet some autistic people," Geoff Bird, associate professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

ASD is something you grow out of.

Doctor talking

For the most part, people don't outgrow autism. Even though much of the social and scientific focus is on childhood ASD, most kids with autism eventually become adults with autism. There are exceptions, however, and recent studies show evidence of some children recovering from ASD. These subjects tended to be high functioning to begin with and, even after they "recovered," many continued to struggle with language, learning and behavioral issues. And to set the record straight on a few other things, check out 17 Most Dangerous Health Myths That Just Won't Go Away.

Autism is curable.

man on couch at doctor's office - male health concerns

While there isn't a cure for ASD, treatments like behavioral therapy and family counseling can be very effective in reducing symptoms and improving quality of life for people with autism, especially young children. "With earlier intervention and good treatments—and we increasingly have good treatments—more and more children do pretty well," Fred R. Volkmar, MD, a psychiatrist at the Yale Medicine Child Study Center, said in a statement.

Certain diets are effective at treating autism

mother packing lunch for her child

Some alternative autism treatments include specialty diets like those that eliminate gluten and dairy. Not only is this practice unproven to help lessen the symptoms of ASD, but taking away certain foods from a child's diet can cause nutrient deficiencies. And for more helpful health information delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

People with ASD are mentally disabled.

parent getting on to her kid in living room

In fact they often have normal to high IQs. Medical distinction between the two conditions remains hard to define, however, in part because most genes associated with autism are also present with intellectual disabilities. People who have ADS tend to struggle with communication and learning behaviors. As a result, the two conditions are are sometimes mistaken for one another.

ASD only affects boys.

kid watching tv, working mom

However, for unknown reasons, boys are much more likely to have the disorder. "One intriguing aspect of autism is that it predominantly affects males; four boys are affected for every one girl," Ted Abel, PhD, director of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, said in a statement. This gender disparity is also true of other neurodevelopmental disorders including ADHD.

There's a one-size-fits-all diagnosis for ASD.

couple doctors office doctor partner

As the name suggests, ASD refers to a group of developmental disorders, each with a wide range of symptoms. Although most people with autism share common difficulties when it comes to socialization, communication and repetitive behaviors, they can still have vastly different disabilities, skills and treatment outcomes.

All people with ASD also have savant syndrome.

Man playing chess with his grandson

Savant syndrome is a rare condition that appears in 10 percent–30 percent of people with ASD, but far more frequently in males. Autistic savants usually have one or more remarkable skills that stand out either in contrast to their overall disability or as prodigious within the general population. These skills can vary drastically in type and degree and may have little practical application.

Doctors know exactly what causes autism.

Man talking with a therapist in therapy

There remains no single definitive cause for ASD, but most scientists agree that genes are a leading factor. "Although families are often most concerned about environmental risk factors for autism, the reality is that genetic factors play a much larger role overall," Andrew Adesman, director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center, said in a statement. Very likely, ASD stems from a number of causes, both genetic and environmental.

Vaccines cause autism.

black baby with father getting vaccine from white female doctor

The vaccine narrative began in 1998 with a study that erroneously suggested a connection between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. Since then, researchers across the globe have performed at least 20 related studies and no data has been found to support a connection between autism and vaccines.

People with ASD are generally nonverbal.

sad child sitting by a window

About 40 percent of children with ASD don't speak while up to 30 percent have limited verbal abilities. Other children with autism may have delayed speech, unusual speech patterns, or may be fluently verbal. With early intervention and the help of a speech-language pathologist, some children who face challenges are able to improve their verbal skills or even become fluent speakers.

People with ASD can't make friends.

children on airplane things that horrify flight attendants

Despite antiquated notions that people with ASD are non-social, research shows that they not only desire friendships, but are very capable of having them, particularly with other autistic people. It may just look a little different. "There's a lot of swinging and missing, but when they do connect, it goes out of the park," Brett Heasman, a research associate at University College London, said in a statement.

Adam Shalvey
Adam Shalvey is a writer based in Rhode Island. Read more
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