HealthFocused

Educational health information to improve your well-being.

Autism: Debunking the Myths and Stereotypes

April 9, 2018
Published in: Children, Mental Health

brightly colored puzzle pieces

What do Dan Aykroyd, Susan Boyle, and Temple Grandin have in common? Even though these famous people have different talents, they all live with autism! In their own ways, they’ve also helped shed light on this often misunderstood condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children in the United States have autism. This includes 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls. A total of 1.5 million American adults fall within the autism spectrum. Unfortunately, several stereotypes about autism contribute to misguided generalizations about the condition that can be misleading.

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is characterized by repetitive behaviors, speech, challenges with social skills, and nonverbal communication, as well as by strengths and differences from those who don't live with autism. We now realize that there is not one form of autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences. The term "spectrum" reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.

Autism's most-obvious signs tend to appear between two and three years of age. In some conditions, it can be caught as early as 18 months. Some developmental delays associated with autism can be identified and addressed even earlier. Around one-third of people with autism remain nonverbal, and approximately one-third of people with autism have an intellectual disability.

Specific medical and mental health issues frequently accompany autism. They include gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures, sleep disturbances, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and phobias. However, autism is very broad, and no diagnosis is the same.

Asperger Syndrome

silhouette of child's head on a puzzleAsperger's is one of the various diagnoses that fall under the autism spectrum. The syndrome stays undiagnosed until a child or adult begins to have serious difficulties in school, at work, or in their personal lives. The diagnosis usually centers primarily around challenges with social interactions. Several other behaviors are also associated with Asperger syndrome:

  • Limited or inappropriate social interactions
  • "Robotic" or repetitive speech
  • Challenges with nonverbal communication such as gestures or facial expressions, but paired with average to above average verbal skills
  • A tendency to discuss self rather than others
  • Inability to understand social/ emotional issues or non-literal phrases
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Obsession with specific, often unusual topics
  • One-sided conversations
  • Awkward movements and/or mannerisms

3 Common Stereotypes

Autistic people are great at math.

Not everyone with autism happens to be a math whiz, but a new study suggests that autistic children who do show above-average math skills do so because they have slightly different brain organization than those who don't have autism.

People with autism are savants.

A savant is defined as someone with a mental condition exhibits an extraordinary ability, or abilities far beyond what is considered a talent. A famous example is Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Rainman – an autistic savant gifted with an extraordinary memory. However, not every individual on the spectrum is a savant. In fact, it is estimated that 10 percent of individuals on the spectrum have savant abilities.

Autistic people either need intensive support or no support at all.

When hearing about parents and healthcare practitioners who assist someone with autism, the general assumption may be that autistic people fall into one of two modes of functioning when it comes to supporting needs: you either need 24/7 supports or you require minimal to no support. A lot of programs and state agencies determine the amount of support based on those two concepts. The truth is, there are a lot of autistic people who are in between "needing intensive support" and "needing minimal to no support" since every case is different.

4 Celebrities Who Debunked the Stereotypes

As autism awareness has become more prominent, several well-known people have opened up about their experiences of living with autism.

Dan Aykroyd

Dan Aykroyd is an actor and screenwriter who is famous for his roles on Saturday Night Live and in Ghostbuster. Aykroyd says his condition contributed to the inspiration for the hit movie Ghostbusters. He told the Daily Mail, "One of my symptoms included my obsession with ghosts and law enforcement—I carry around a police badge with me, for example. I became obsessed by Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever. That's when the idea of my film Ghostbusters was born."

Temple Grandin

Colorado State University calls her "the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world." Even fighting the effects of autism, she has still managed to become a professor of animal science at a prestigious institute of higher education. According to her website, Grandin didn't speak until she was three and a half years of age, "communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping and humming." After being diagnosed with autism, her parents were told she should be institutionalized. Grandin is not only a professor of animal science, but she has become an outspoken advocate for the autism community. TIME magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010. HBO produced a biopic based on her life called Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes.

Alexis Wineman

Miss Montana 2012 became the first Miss America contestant with autism to compete in the pageant. She began showing signs of the disorder at the age of two but was not diagnosed until age eleven. The Miss America program it is requires each contestant to select a personal platform statement. Wineman's platform involved autism awareness and was titled, "Normal is just a Dryer Setting-Living with Autism." Through her year as Miss Montana, she spoke at various conferences and appeared at public events such as the Montana Autism Walk. By using her platform as her guiding light, she reached the top 15 in the Miss America competition and won America's Choice Award. In a blog post, she wrote on Autism Speaks, the titleholder states, "I hope to be a positive face for those who feel lost and hopeless, whether they have autism or not. I want to show people that being on the spectrum is not a death sentence but a life adventure."

Susan Boyle

The 56-year old winner of Britain's Got Talent was diagnosed with Asperger's, a type of autism in 2012. She was misdiagnosed as a child and told she had brain damage. Asperger's affects communication and social interaction. Sufferers have difficulty picking up on social cues and gauging appropriate behavior. Boyle was deprived of oxygen at her birth and was bullied throughout her school years, nicknamed "Susie Simple" by her classmates. The performer claims it was not autism that caused her to struggle; it was the misdiagnosis. She has been living a much better life ever since the proper diagnosis.

Autism includes a range of conditions characterized by challenges with communication, repetitive behaviors, speaking and sometimes relationships, as well as by unique strengths and differences. No diagnosis is the same, making this a broad condition and all stereotypes void. It's essential for every person with autism to be treated with respect and understanding.