Myths of the Autism Spectrum

How Historical, Medical, and Social Attitudes Shaped Myths About Autism

“I think that society really needs to do a bit of soul-searching about how we’re dealing with autism,” he says. “We need to get over our obsession with causes…” – Steve Silberman

At Stanfield, we understand that some individuals on the autism spectrum often face challenges with social skills, soft skills, communication, and/or behavior—and some face different challenges altogether. This is why we believe that myths about autism and individuals on the autism spectrum need to be recognized and unraveled in order to help create a better understanding of the condition. In breaking down these myths, we can focus on ways to help those on the autism spectrum live healthy and fulfilling lives.

In his new book NeuroTribes , science writer Steve Silberman chronicles the history of autism and investigates myths as well as their origins. He traces the history back to 1938, when an Austrian pediatrician named Hans Asperger gave the first public talk on autism in history.

Here are some highlights we’d like to share from Silberman’s interview with NPR’s Terry Gross as well as myths of the autism spectrum.

  • Myth #1: The terms ‘High-Functioning’ and ‘Low-Functioning’ are accurate and preferred

Silberman writes that he avoids these terms of classification, because he believes that people who may be classified as high functioning are often dealing with problems that may not be scientifically obvious. The alternate is true for those that are low functioning—they often have skills that are not as easily recognizable.

Aside from being inaccurate, these terms are often hurtful to individuals on the autism spectrum, as they imply that their skills can be neatly measured, when, in reality their minds work in unique ways that cannot always be represented on neurotypical scales/measurements. Avoid using these terms—it may be your first instinct to try to categorize someone that has an “invisible disability,” as autism is often described, but the “high-functioning” and “low-functioning labels” are insulting.

  • Myth #2: Hans Asperger discovered the condition called Asperger syndrome

Many people assume this to be true; however, in the 1930s, Asperger and his colleagues discovered what they called the “autistic continuum.” This meant that they discovered that the condition of autism was a lifelong one, lasting from birth to death. Today we call his “autistic continuum” the autism spectrum.

Referring to autism as a spectrum is a respectful way to recognize this disability. It shows that you understand that not all autistic individuals are the same or have the same symptoms and challenges. Understanding and respecting these differences is crucial to becoming an ally and helping individuals on the spectrum overcome harmful stereotypes. By overcoming these stereotypes, society can pave the way for better research to help these individuals live fulfilling, safe lives where they feel comfortable and accepted.

  •  Myth #3: The film Rain Man negatively impacted parents of autistic children

The 1988 Academy Award-winning film starring Dustin Hoffman increased the cultural awareness of autism, and helped parents of autistic children explain their child’s challenges to a much larger audience. Hoffman’s character of Raymond Babbit was, for most people, the first autistic adult they had ever seen.  The film created “a wave of cultural awareness of autism more than any of the autism organizations had been able to accomplish in decades before that.”

Of course, the film’s implications of autistic individuals have withstood the test of time—sometimes in a way that’s problematic for those on the spectrum. While the film exposed the cause to a society that would otherwise remain unaware of autism, individuals today are still fighting some of the stereotypes that have blossomed from Rain Man. Everyone should consider that autism exists on a spectrum, and while some autistic individuals may have habits that resembles Raymond Babbit’s, and the link to savantism may have some ground, everyone on the spectrum has characteristics that manifest differently. Keep an open mind to these differences and avoid these harmful stereotypes as they hinder social progress.

  • Myth #4: Society isn’t taking autism seriously or attempting to address the challenges

Due to widespread cultural awareness of autism, more and more organizations are hoping to address the challenges it presents as well as develop more research around the causes of this highly complex and heterogeneous condition. While Silberman admires this research, he also believes that some of the money typically poured into research should be used to help those on the autism spectrum live more fulfilling, safer lives.

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding which types of research would be the most valuable to the autistic community. Silberman is correct in explaining how research can shift away from the “causes” and shift towards help and resources for individuals on the spectrum. One of the greatest needs facing the community right now is providing housing and residential support, as well as transition and job skills support, for individuals on the spectrum who are leaving high school and aspiring to reach greater levels of independence. We truly believe that teaching work skills and life skills is one of the best ways to support the autistic community that has aged out of support programs that are usually geared towards children.

Read the full article here: NPR, ‘NeuroTribes’ Examines The History — And Myths — Of The Autism Spectrum

Image via Pyxurz

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