The Myths and the Facts of Autism

Let’s say you took a dozen people from all walks of life, all completely healthy, and put them in a room together, where they come face to face with a dozen other people, each of whom has a single disease that is different from the other eleven.  The healthy dozen are told that each one of them must choose one of the unhealthy persons across the table and take them home, to live with them for the rest of their lives.  The cost of their care will be paid for by the government, and they will have access to all resources available.  Eleven of the diseases are physical, such as cancer, diabetes, paraplegia, COPD, etc.  The one remaining disease is one of the mind, Autism.  The healthy hosts are told who has what disease and they draw numbers to decide the picking order.

Who do you think is going to be the last one picked?  My bet would be the autistic person because even our better-educated population today still holds fears and stigmas about disorders of the mind.  Our emotional understanding of medical challenges such as cancer and diabetes is much stronger, largely because we have a better cognitive understanding of what cancer and diabetes are.  Ah, but when someone says, “My daughter was just diagnosed with Autism”, listeners have more of a puzzled look on their faces than an empathetic one because we have just not been able to cognitively grasp what Autism entails.  Thus, when we lack cognitive recognition of a medical issue, we hinder our empathy for that issue, which opens the door for fear of the unknown to rise up.  We then fill in the blanks to help us understand what we don’t truly understand, which is how myths and misconceptions become commonplace.  In other words, ignorance breeds falsehoods.

Recent gun-related tragedies at Sandy Hook and Columbine have fanned the flames of fear over mental health illness and the perceived propensity for mentally challenged people to be “dangerous”, “unpredictable”, and  ‘deranged”; someone who needs to be maintained in a psychiatric ward or a forensic prison.  I think most people want these “criminals” to be helped, but they also don’t want them getting that help in their neighborhood or around their kids’ schools.  Unfortunately, all mind disorders, including Autism, get lumped into this “dangerous” category because the common person doesn’t understand the differences in diagnoses.  Again, ignorance breeds falsehoods.  I would like to use the rest of this article to dispel some of the myths of Autism and reinforce how we need not fear it.

Autism is a neurological disorder that impairs how a person interacts with the world and communicates with others, one that is usually diagnosed by the age of three.  Autism is not something you can “catch” from other people or the environment; it is genetic and impairs how our nerve cells talk to each other.  There has been not a single clinical study that even suggests people with autism are more likely to be violent, towards themselves or anyone else.  In truth, autistic children and adults are more withdrawn from others, thinking and feeling within a world of their own making because of the interaction and perception challenges inherent in the disorder.  This feature is actually the biggest focus of treatment and care; to expose a child to as much stimuli as possible to help her connect better with the real world.  Thus, a person with Autism is much more likely to ignore you than to harm you; they just don’t really notice that much or care that you are there.

“Well, you just don’t know what autistic people could be thinking about in there” is a thought I have heard voiced all too often.  This comment does have some merit to it; we truly don’t know all that is going on in there because how you and I process statements and environmental cues is not how an autistic person does it.  You and I would look at a glowing stove top burner and think, “Oh, watch it, that is hot!”  A person who is autistic might look at the glowing stove top burner and think, “Ooooh, pretty!” and reach out to grasp it.  The above statement is a great example of ignorance leading to assumptions and stereotypes as the uniformed person tries to make sense out of something that makes no sense.  With the above example of the hot stove burner, autistic people are more in need of our protection than people are in need of protection from them.

Autism is also often lumped in with disorders such as Schizophrenia, Bipolar, and Mental Retardation, to name a few.  Other than thinking that autistic people are more prone to violence, nothing could be more inaccurate or stigmatizing.  While some mental illnesses have similarities in symptoms and course of treatment, each has well defined traits that distinguish one from another.  Autistic people often look like they are staring into space, unfocussed on what is right in front of them.  Actually, they have a lot going on “in there”; it just does not show in their facial expressions or mannerisms.  Autistic folks also tend to engage in repetitive behaviors, such as spinning around in place, tapping on items, or repeating the same word over and over.  Because their language progression is compromised, they have trouble speaking and verbally indicating what they want. A rhythmic tapping of a spoon on a dish could mean they want more French fries, or it could just mean they enjoy the sound of silverware on porcelain and ignore those French fries entirely. Teaching them how to communicate in a set way helps to make that link between them and our world stronger.

Fear of the unknown is a big nemesis to education and understanding, as it creates beliefs and “facts” that are more myth than truth. Most people create their own perceptions as a way of fitting in with their world.  Autistic people are just trying to accomplish the same thing, and I hope this article has shed some light on how understanding each other helps us all fit in with greater harmony and peace.  My thanks.

Do you know when is the Autism Awareness Day worldwide?