Myths About Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome

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Woman in Mask, Image Courtesy of graur codrin, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The following are some common misconceptions about autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Myth: People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Have No Sense of Humour

Fact: Reports from parents and others indicate that plenty of those with autistic spectrum disorders do in fact have a sense of humour (Lyons & Fitzgerald, 2004). Taking a tour through various Asperger’s forums provides further evidence that people with ASDs are perfectly capable of appreciating humour and cracking jokes, though the sense of humour may be quirky and offbeat in many cases.

Myth: Those with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Never Talk

Fact: Many people with high-functioning ASDs are very communicative. In particular, lots of people with Asperger’s syndrome are highly verbal and some are even linguistically gifted, though aspects of speech (tone of voice, use of metaphor, accompanying body language) may be unusual.

Myth: People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Are Dangerous

Fact: Studies have shown that those on the autistic spectrum are no more statistically likely to commit various crimes than non-autistics (Barnhill, 2007; Griffith, 10 May 2006), and “Experts have found no link between Asperger’s syndrome and violent crime” in particular (Booth, 28 October 2008). In addition, a review of studies undertaken by Ghaziuddin et al. (1991) “did not support the speculation that violence is common in Asperger syndrome.” Furthermore, Langstrom et al. (2009) found that when those with ASDs have commited violent offenses, substance abuse and/or psychosis were often factors. In other words, drugs or mental illness likely tipped them over the edge, rather than anger management issues associated with ASDs.

Although there have been a few sensationalized cases of violent crimes committed by people with autistic spectrum disorders, the same can be said of neurotypicals (non-autistic people). Unfortunately, there will be a handful of extremely violent people in almost any group, and in this regard, those with ASDs are no different than the rest of the population.

People with autistic spectrum disorders may have violent outbursts due to anxiety caused by sensory overload or difficulties with emotional regulation. Such outbursts are often directed at objects (smashing things, throwing things, etc.). Those with ASDs may also lash out at people who have bullied them in the past (pre-emptive or self-defense strikes) or in response to teasing, but are as unlikely as neurotypicals to attack a random person out of sheer malice (Attwood, 2007).

Although not inclined to be cruel or homicidal, some children with Asperger’s syndrome do have trouble restraining relatively mild aggressive impulses and may shove a sibling or slap a parent when frustrated, but many neurotypical children have these anger management problems, and lots children with autistic spectrum disorders are very gentle. It’s quite possible that other aspects of personality (i.e., an aggressive nature) are exacerbated with ASDs due to sensory overload, anxiety, social problems, or other issues. In such cases, the ASD itself is not the trigger for aggressiveness, but it may worsen an already aggressive personality.

Myth: Autistic People Never Make Eye Contact

Fact: Although they usually find it uncomfortable, particularly with those they don’t know well, most people on the autistic spectrum can force themselves to make eye contact.

Myth: All Those with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Can’t Work

Fact: According to a longitudinal U.S. study that was completed in 2009, by the age of 23-26, 66% of those with autistic spectrum disorders had worked for pay at some point after leaving high school (AutismNOW.com, 2011).

In some cases, special interests or skills associated with ASDs can lead to lucrative careers, though in others, individuals on the autistic spectrum suffer challenges that bring a premature end to their employment, or they take jobs below their skill levels to reduce social demands or the risk of sensory overload (Barnhill, 2007).

Ideal jobs for people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome are those that:

    • Allow for some control over the environment and workflow
    • Don’t subject the individual to excessive stimuli (bright lights, loud noises, jostling crowds)
    • Don’t require frequent or rapid activity transitions
    • Don’t entail compulsory socializing
    • Are overseen by understanding managers
    • Allow the individual to work alone or with compatible coworkers (others who share interests, who don’t require constant chit-chat, who aren’t judgemental or chronically irritable, etc.)

Myth: No One with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder Can Live Independently

Fact: Many of those with relatively mild autistic spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome do live independently. Some require help sorting out things such as personal finances or dealing with government agencies, but meeting the diagnostic criteria for a high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder doesn’t automatically mean that the individual will always live at home or in a care facility (National Institute of Mental Health, 8 December 2010).

Myth: Those on the Autistic Spectrum Can’t Show Love and Affection or Have Relationships

Fact: Contrary to popular belief, many of those on the autistic spectrum, particularly at the high-functioning end of the continuum, are capable of showing affection and bonding with others. They may not go in for big, mushy emotional scenes or grandiose public displays of affection, but many are capable of loving others and being physically affectionate as well, once they have become comfortable with another person.

The majority of those with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism want a social life (ideally based around shared interests) and seek to make connections with like-minded people. However, they may have difficulty breaking the ice initially to establish friendships and romantic relationships.

Those on the autistic spectrum (particularly people with Asperger’s syndrome) often have friends, and although they are statistically less likely to marry than neurotypicals (Barnhill, 2007), plenty of people with Asperger’s syndrome maintain positive relationships, get married, and even raise children (Leigh, 23 July 2007).

Myth: Those with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome Are Not Creative or Imaginative

Fact: Many people on the autistic spectrum have vivid imaginations and are highly creative. A number of experts believe that autistic spectrum disorders can be a wellspring of creativity. For example, Hans Asperger viewed autistic intelligence as “a sort of intelligence hardly touched by tradition and culture – ‘unconventional, unorthodox, strangely pure and original, akin to the intelligence of true creativity’” (cited in Fitzgerald, 2004).

According to Brasic (27 April 2011), “Published case reports of individuals with Asperger syndrome suggest an association with the capacity to accomplish cutting-edge research in computer science, mathematics, and physics, as well as outstanding creative work in art, film, and music.” There certainly are plenty of highly creative, successful people who have been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders, such as Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri.

Myth: Autism Is Caused by Bad Parenting

Fact: In the 1940s, a well-known psychiatrist named Leo Kanner asserted that many children with autism had mothers who lacked warmth. Bruno Bettelheim and other psychoanalysts seized on this, developing and popularizing the theory that autism was caused by bad parenting – specifically, “refrigerator” mothers who denied their babies opportunities to bond. This theory has since been widely discredited, though some people still cling to it (Morris, 2008).

The reality is that many loving, competent parents have children with autistic spectrum disorders. Also, if a certain parenting style caused autism, all siblings in a family should be on the spectrum, yet many children with ASDs have neurotypical siblings.

Also worth noting is that researchers probably overlooked the obvious: Given that ASDs have a genetic component, some mothers of children with autistic spectrum disorders may have had very mild versions themselves, and thus appeared cold because they weren’t as emotional or physically demonstrative as other mothers. However, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t love their children or bond with them. It’s also possible that some of the mothers had become depressed because their children were autistic, and the emotional withdrawal associated with this depression made them appear cold and uncaring.

Myth: Vaccinations Cause Autism

Fact: Numerous large, rigorous studies undertaken in many different countries have found either no link between autism and vaccination, or reduced rates of autism and neurological problems among vaccinated children (Begley & Interlandi, 2009; Hall, 2009; Miller & Reynolds, 2009; Norton, 4 January 2004). For more information on this, see Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

Myth: Those with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Are All Alike (The “Rain Man” Assumption)

Fact: Although there are certain common tendencies, not everyone with an ASD will manifest all of them, and each individual has a unique constellation of personality traits, life experiences, and ways of interacting with the world, just like neurotypicals.

Myth: People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Are Mentally Retarded

Fact: Many people with autistic spectrum disorders have above-average intelligence. Furthermore, experts are now questioning the diagnosis of mental retardation given to more severely impaired people with autism, as communication deficits probably led to the faulty assumption that they lacked intelligence (Wolman, 2008).

Myth: Every Person on the Autistic Continuum Is a Genius or Savant

Fact: Just 10% of those on the autistic continuum show signs of actual genius or have savant skills (compared to 1% of the general population). In other words, those with autistic spectrum disorders are 10 times as likely as neurotypicals to be geniuses, but the majority don’t have savant skills (Society for Neuroscience, 3 November 2004; Watt, 28 May 2010).

Myth: Almost Everyone on the Autistic Spectrum Is Male

Fact: Although the diagnosis rate is certainly much higher among males, there are many females with autistic spectrum disorders. Furthermore, a number of experts believe that girls are underdiagnosed because they are often better able to hide their differences. For more on this, see Girls with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Myth: All Those with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Are Clumsy and Dislike Sports

Fact: Not everyone with an ASD suffers from motor clumsiness (estimates range from as high as 90% to as low as 50%, according to Fitzgerald and Corvin, 2001), and those who do do can often reduce or even eliminate the problem through physical therapy or simply participating in physical activities of their choice.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that people with autistic spectrum disorders tend to prefer solitary sports and fitness activities (running, weight training, swimming, etc.), and a number of them have become accomplished athletes, or at least achieved very high fitness levels. For more on this, see Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Sports.

Myth: People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Lack Empathy

Fact: Mounting evidence indicates that those with autistic spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome actually suffer from an excess of emotional empathy (picking up feelings from others) rather than a lack of empathy, though they often have difficulty predicting how others will respond to their emotions (Smith, 2009). For more on autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and the capacity for empathy, see Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Empathy.

For more articles on autistic spectrum disorders, visit the main Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome page.

Note: Asperger’s syndrome has been removed from the DSM as a diagnostic category, and is now considered part of the larger autistic spectrum. However, many people still use and identify with the term, and it has been an area of focus for prior studies, so we continue to use Asperger’s syndrome in this article series. 

References:

    • Autism NOW, The National Autism Resource and Information Center. (2011). “Employment Research and Reports.” AutismNOW.org.
    • Barnhill, G. P. (2007). “Outcomes in Adults With Asperger Syndrome.” Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities, 22(2), 116-126.
    • Brasic, J.R., MD, MPH. (Reviewed by Chief Editor C. Pataki, MD). (27 April 2011). “Asperger Syndrome.” EMedicine.Medscape.com.
    • BBC News. (8 January 2004). “Brilliant Minds Linked to Autism.” News.BBC.co.uk.
    • Booth, J. (28 October 2004). “Asperger’s Not Linked to Violence, Experts Say.” The Sunday Times, TimesOnline.co.uk.
    • Dryden-Edwards, R., MD (Author), & Shiel, W.C., Jr., MD, FACP, FACR (Editor). (2 April 2010). “Autism (In Children and Adults).” Medicine.net.
    • Fitzgerald, M. (2004). Autism and Creativity: Is There a Link between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability? New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
    • Fitzgerald, M., & Corvin, A. (2001). “Diagnosis and Differential Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 7, 310-318.
    • Ghaziuddin, M.; Tsai, L.; & Ghaziuddin, N. (1991). “Violence in Asperger Syndrome, A Critique.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 21(3), 349-354.
    • Griffith, H. (10 May 2006). “Asperger’s ‘Has No Link to Crime’.” News.BBC.co.uk.
    • Langstrom, N.; Grann, M.; Ruchkin, V.; Sjostedt, G.; & Fazel, S. (2009). “Risk Factors for Violent Offending in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A National Study of Hospitalized Individuals.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 24(8), 1,358-1,370.
    • Leigh, S. (23 July 2007). “A Long Shadow Is Lifted on Asperger’s in Adults.” USAToday.com.
    • Lyons, V., & Fitzgerald, M. (2004). “Humor in Autism and Asperger Syndrome.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 34(5), 521-531.
    • Morris, B.K. (2008). “Refrigerator Mothers – A Discredited Cause of Autism.” Autism-Help.org.
    • National Institute of Mental Health. (8 December 2010). “Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Developmental Disorders).” NIMH.NIH.gov.
    • Smith, A. (2009). “The Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis of Autism: A Theoretical Approach to Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Autistic Development.” Psychological Record, 59(3), 489-510.
    • Society For Neuroscience (3 November 2004). “Deciphering A Mystery: New Research Provides Clues To The Genetic, Neurological, And Molecular Basis Of Autism.” ScienceDaily.com.
    • Watt, M. (28 May 2010). “Daniel Tammet: Mathematical Genius Visualizes Numbers, Solves Problems in Blink of an Eye.” ABCNews.go.com.
    • Wolman, D. (25 February 2008). “The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know.” Wired, Wired.com.

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