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Busting some common myths about autism

Caitlin McCormack
Shine from Yahoo! Canada
January 9, 2012

With approximately one in 200 Canadians living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the odds are fairly high that you might know of someone with a form of ASD.

While much about autism is unknown, such as what causes the disorder, there is a lot about it that is known. Even with all that science has uncovered about autism, there are still a lot of common myths that keep swirling about, often due to bad science and lack of education.

We spoke with autism treatment specialist Jonathan Alderson, who’s worked with families around the world to better understand their child’s needs, to get a better understanding of some common myths and what the truths behind them really are.

Myth: Autistic children lack imagination

Truth: Because people with autism generally have difficulty expressing their thoughts in a way that makes sense to neurotypical people (those who are not on the autism spectrum), it’s tough to see exactly what sorts of creative thoughts are going through their minds. However, Alderson says that in his work he’s seen firsthand that children with autism can indeed think creatively. In his book, “Challenging the Myths of AutismAlderson writes of a young girl named Harriet, who decided to decoratively paint her Halloween pumpkin red with a green stem like an apple. The fact that the young girl could look at the pumpkin and visualize it as something other than what it was is proof to him that she has imaginative thoughts.

Movements like Artism, which showcase the artistic works of people with autism, also help to blast the imagination myth out of the water.

Myth: Autistic children are mentally retarded

Children with autism don’t respond well to standardized IQ testing, Alderson says. As people with autism are often non-verbal, the appropriateness of using a written and spoken test to assess their IQ is often questioned, as these sorts of tests tend to give people with autism lower intelligence scores.

[See also: Study finds childhood autism rates as high as 1 in 38]

In fact, when using a slightly different non-verbal test like the Raven test for intelligence, those with autism have upwards of 30% higher scores than they achieve with the standard IQ test Alderson notes.

And because there is such a spectrum of affectedness for those with ASD, some people can be high-functioning “normal” intelligence, while others struggle with standardized tests. The character played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Rain Man” is just one example of how someone with autism can be of a high-functioning intelligence in one aspect (math) but struggle with other areas like social and verbal skills.

Myth: Autistic children can’t share affection or love

This is probably one of the most damaging myths affecting people with autism says Alderson. The problem with this myth is that there is no real standard way to measure what affection is and what it means. To a person with autism, affection might mean sharing in a game of Lego building play, whereas to North American society at large it means hugs and kisses and verbal assurances of “I love you”.

And because many people with autism have hypersensitivities to sensations like noise and touch, a hug might feel suffocating and whispers could seem like screaming.

“The onus really is on the adults to figure out how to express what the child can understand,” Alderson says of affection between parent and child.

A great example of this is the story of Temple Grandin, who became a household name after Claire Danes’ portrayal of her in a 2010 TV-movie. In her book “Animals In Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior”, renowned autism advocate Grandin writes “It's not that autistic children don't want to be touched; it's that their nervous systems can't handle it.”

Grandin, who herself is autistic, writes that she wanted the nice feeling of being held, but for her it was simply too overwhelming, causing her to panic and pull away.

There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence debunking this myth. On the website challengethemyths.com, Kim writes of her son:

“I have a 15 year old [sic] son with Autism who is one of the most affectionate people I know! He hugs us several times a day without any solicitation from us at all; in fact, he is more affectionate than his neurotypical sibling!”

Alderson says that deep down all people, whether they have autism or not, simply want respect, care and love.  “They’re humans; we all want that. It’s silly for us to think they wouldn’t want that.”

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