by Tulika Prasad
Autism is a complex diagnosis. It’s a spectrum so it makes it all the more difficult to put it within the boundaries of a set of characteristics. As they say, every autistic individual has very unique traits and since it’s not a physical disability , sometimes autism is simply considered to be the result of bad parenting or a set of behavior anomalies that a person might have and therefore ignored or not takes seriously.
With the medical science still struggling to find a cause for autism and tons of alternative medicines mushrooming and claiming to treat the symptoms, there seems to be even more confusion and misinformation around what autism actually is. Consequently myths around autism abound and although there have been efforts to raise awareness, there is a lot that needs to be known and understood.
There have been several myths that must have been discussed umpteem times so some might seem repetitive but pushing the point across one more time might not hurt. Here is my list of pet peeves :
- The “Rainman/Good doctor” myth – autistics are not invariably geniuses. Although I applaud the efforts by these TV shows and movies to help make autism a household term, but this is just one side of the story that only talks a about a tiny percentage of autistic individuals who have extraordinary skills. Just like every shy Peter Parker does not have a spiderman alter ego, similarly every autistic child is not a Dr. Shaun Murphy. My son is 9 and is still struggling with foundation academics. I know of several autistic kids who will not, by any social standards , be called a whiz kid. Instead , they need help reading, writing, and navigating everyday , needing help for the most mundane of tasks. Autism is not a ticket to cognitive or artistic excellence.
- The “superhuman” myth – in line with the myth above is the myth that tends to overcompensate for what might be missing in autistic individuals. No- I don’t think that they can hear through several walls, or actually read a book just by looking at the cover or play like Beethoven the moment they are exposed to a piano. Some of them might, but that is not an indicator of what every other autistic person can or cannot do. Some neurotypical individuals can also do extraordinary things. That does not extrapolate to every other person walking on the street. Same goes for autism.
- The circumstantial origin myth – Almost every parent of an autistic child has heard this – it’s the result of bad parenting. This is the most common one. But there are many others too – it’s because I left him in daycares and went to work!!! He is non-verbal because your mom passed away when he was a kid and you were grieving so you did not speak with him much!!!! You chose easy food options like yogurts and pureed fruits when he was a baby that’s why he has feeding issues !!! You are so far away from your family that he feels lonely and thus the social anxiety !! You are overprotective and don’t let him be independent and that’s the reason for his poor motor skills !! You don’t let me play outdoors enough and hence the sensory issues !!! The excuses abound and none of those have any scientific basis. None want to believe that Autism is a medical diagnosis and not the result of the choices parents made or the circumstances kids grew up in. Big Myth!!!
- The apathy myth – Another common misconception, which can be majorly attributed to professionals working with autistic kids in the early years is that individuals with autism lack emotions. I have a child on the autism spectrum and I say this from my personal experience that this is not always true. Not having emotions and not showing emotions are two completely different things. Autistic individuals have a difficult time emoting which is commonly misread as lack of emotions. I agree that the range of emotions they display might be a little limited and they may find it hard to relate to situations but when they do, they do show appropriate emotions.
- The attacker myth – Aggression is not uncommon among individuals with autism. In a lot of the cases it roots out of the sensory overload they experience or the frustration from their inability to express themselves. Having said that, not every person on the autism spectrum will charge at you and try to harm you every time you come face to face with one. Infact many autistic kids find deep pressure very reassuring and so they seek hugs. My son is one of those kids. You will find him hugging strangers which can get embarrassing sometimes but there is no aggression. Even with those who lean towards being aggressive, the more we can relate to them and understand what they are seeking or trying to say, the less the chances of aggression.
- The “if only he could speak” myth – My son has major speech challenges and is practically non-verbal. Speech issues is not uncommon among people with autism. However, speech is just one of the many challenges that they have. It’s not the *only* challenge. So please stop saying that if only he could talk, it would make everything alright !!! Autism is very different from speech impairment. There are many autistic people who can talk well. That does not make them any less autistic. Autism is characterized by several issues that may or may not include speech delays and merely being able to speak is not the panacea for autism.
- The special diet myth – I was recently booking a hotel room for our upcoming vacation and during my discussion with the owner I informed her that my son has autism. The lady immediately said they offer gluten free breakfast. It was really thoughtful of her but it made me wonder what people think about people on the spectrum. Every person on the autism spectrum is not on a special diet. Infact if you look around you might find tons of non-autistic people following a special diet – dairy free, gluten free, vegan, GMO free, organic and several others. Special diet is not limited to autism and you will find many autistic people who eat almost everything like you and me.
- The reverse diagnosis myth – I’ve heard so many grown ups look back and say that they probably had autism.Why, you may ask? That’s because they thought they were socially awkward. I’m sorry about your social awkwardness and that you did not feel like you fit in but that alone does not qualify for you to be autistic and neither is that an excuse. Just because you have an OCD does not necessarily mean you have autism either. Autism is complex and is manifested by several developmental disabilities including social, motor, speech , sensory and several others. My son lacked imaginative. He did not bring us imaginary icecream cones or turn into a pirate when riding on our couch.That was one of our red flags. So, please stop simplifying the challenges of autism by equating it with just social anxiety or OCD or hyperactivity. There are several more nuances that you need to take into account before you self diagnose.
There are many other myths that I might not have touched upon and the list might be much longer that just the ones listed above. The misinformation is partly because of the lack of awareness and also because autism is such a vast spectrum. It’s always a good idea to educate than get offended when someone shows their ignorance. The more we talk about the challenges that autism comes with and the more open we are about what it entails the less shrouded in confusion will autism be. Although TV shows and movies are doing a good job of spreading awareness, they generally show the “brighter” side of autism which makes it look more glamorous than it might actually be. There are caregivers who are still diapering their 21 yr old autistic child and there are 18 yr old autistic adults who are giving motivational speeches. The diversity is mind boggling and it can confuse an outsider very easily. Lets work toward dispelling these myths because only then we can spread better awareness and acceptance .
Tulika Prasad is mom to Vedant, a handsome young boy who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. Among other things that have changed after the diagnosis is her perspective towards life. Together with her spouse, Ravish, she is enjoying bringing up her son who is teaching them new lessons every step of the way. She shares her family’s experiences, stories and tips on this unique journey with autism on her blog at www.braindroplets.com