Autism Isn’t What You Think It Is


April 10, 2019

In 1988, an award-winning movie starring Dustin Hoffman made the American people aware of autism, but it also created one of the biggest myths surrounding the condition. Rain Man was the story of an autistic savant, a man who struggled with the limits of autistic behaviors while having a genius’s ability to calculate numbers. Only one in ten autistic individuals, however, have savant abilities, and most of those are nowhere near the magnitude of Rain Man’s.

Because autism covers a spectrum of disorders with frequently changing definitions, other myths also accompany the disorder. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says it affects about 1 in 59 children in the United States and occurs in all ethnicities, races and socioeconomic groups, but boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls.

To increase awareness and understanding of the condition, the month of April has been designated as World Autism Month. Starting with United Nations-supported Awareness Day on April 2, organizations around the world sponsor four weeks of autism-friendly activities and educational opportunities.  

What is Autism?

No one medical definition describes autism. Researchers think genetic and environmental factors play a role, and every individual has a unique set of abilities that range from gifted to challenged.  Some people may lead independent lives while others need ongoing daily help. Physical and mental conditions, such as sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, and anxiety or depression, may co-exist with autism.

Signs usually show up by age 3, but some may be noticeable or even diagnosable by 18 months. Studies suggest that early recognition and treatment improve outcomes later in life. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association combined four specific kinds of autism, including Asperger syndrome, into one broad diagnosis called autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Signs & Symptoms of Autism

Symptoms fall into two broad categories: repetitive behavior and difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication. For a diagnosis, these symptoms must have started in childhood, be ongoing and interfere with daily life. Many people with autism are also sensitive to taste, sound, touch and other sensations. Medical providers use a checklist to identify signs of the disorder.

Repetitive behaviors cover a wide range and often involve body movements and motions. They may also include rituals, compulsive touching of objects, limited or extreme fields of interest, and resistance to changes in daily routines. Adults and children with autism may have trouble understanding speech, eye contact, facial expressions, tone, literal interpretations and gestures. They may also find it difficult to determine personal boundaries, recognize others’ intentions, recognize their own emotions or those of others, take part in social encounters or know how to take turns in conversations. 

Common Autism Myths

Although new discoveries are being made, autism diagnoses have gone up by 30 percent in the United States since 2008. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital discussed common myths about autism in 2018. Here are some highlights from that discussion:

  • Vaccines cause autism.

    Researchers say studies have been done on thousands of children, and none has shown a link between autism and vaccinations. Robin Kochel, Ph.D, an autism researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, says autism runs in families. To support that claim, scientists point to over 65 genes they have already identified and say that many of them are necessary for prenatal development of the brain.

  • Everyone with autism has problems with relationships.

    While it is true that people on the autism spectrum may have challenges with social situations, many still want to have close relationships with their friends and family. That’s one of the reasons that early intervention is so important. People with autism can learn skills that make it easier for them to interact with others. They can, in fact, have strong, loving relationships.

  • People with autism have intellectual disabilities.

    Just like the rest of the population, people with autism have varying levels of intelligence. Some people have intellectual disorders, but some also score above average on IQ tests. Kelli Baalman, Ph.D., in the Department of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, says people with autism may have learning deficits or areas of giftedness that are not related to their diagnosis. Every person is different.

  • Special diets and supplements can address specific autism symptoms.

    Research has shown no nutritional regimens, vitamins or supplements to be specifically beneficial for the relief of autism symptoms. The Autism Science Foundation publishes a guide warning of non-evidence-based substances. A gluten- and casein-free diet, for instance, doesn’t appear to have any effect on autism and could actually result in a child with lower bone density, leading to osteoporosis. Like anyone else, individuals will benefit from a healthy lifestyle but not specifically because it helps with autism symptoms.

  • Children under three can’t be diagnosed with autism.

    Autism spectrum disorders can be diagnosed as early as 18 to 24 months in some cases, but most children are four of older before they are diagnosed. Although early intervention is helpful, some children may not show noticeable social challenges until they are older and have more complicated lives.

    Incidents of autism have increased over the past 40 years, but the National Autism Association reminds parents that it can be managed with modern interventions. Early intervention is the key. The association’s safety guide suggests ways parents and guardians can provide a safe environment and daily support. It also provides advice on dealing with bullies and proper restraint. With awareness and education, autistic adults and children can and do live full lives.