Just what is autism? About 1 in 110 children born in the United States are diagnosed with autism, a development disorder typically characterized by impaired social skills, ritualistic and repetitive behaviors, and severe language deficits. When I began working with kids with autism nearly 10 years ago, I had a basic knowledge of the disorder from books and college psych classes, but none of that prepared me for the vast contrasts in ability and personality that I encountered. Although increasing prevalence rates of autism have gained national attention in recent years, many pieces of the puzzle remain a mystery. This article explores some common misconceptions surrounding autism, and the truths behind them.
1. Vaccines cause autism
The widespread paranoia concerning a possible link between autism and the MMR vaccine stems from a 1998 British study done by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Recent investigations have not only disproven his research, but stripped him of his medical license and declared him a “medical fraud” who fabricated data in order to support his theory. Whilemany parents chose to avoid vaccinating their children,cases of measles have been on the rise; meanwhile legitimate research efforts have been diverted by the erroneous claims of the faulty study.
So what actually does cause autism? Unfortunately, this remains a mystery. Many experts believe the answer lies in a combination of genetic and environmental factors, although no individual cause has yet been proven.
2. Rain Man is an accurate portrayal of people with autism.
There is some truth to this generalized statement. In 1988, Dustin Hoffman gave a remarkable performance (and was recognized with an Academy Award) for his portrayal of an autistic savant named Raymond Babbitt. In one memorable scene from Rain Man, Raymond’s brother Charlie (played by Tom Cruise) takes him to Las Vegas to play blackjack. Raymond’s extraordinary memory and mathematical abilities allow him to count and memorize six decks of cards as they are dealt, netting his brother a fortune. His exceptional abilities contrast markedly with some of his other behaviors, such as refusinganything but fish sticks and lime jello for dinner on Wednesdays, and throwinga fitif he misses an episode of The People’s Court.
Along with typical characteristics of autism like social deficits and repetitive behaviors, autistic savants display unique talents, usually in the field of art, math, or music. They often can memorize the seemingly impossible, such as calendars or a decade’s worth of bus schedules. One of the first students I ever worked with was able to tell me, in a matter of seconds, what day of the week my birthday fell on in any year, past or future. He could also tell me the exact time of day at any moment, without the aid of a watch or clock. Only about 1 in 10 people with autism are labeled as “savants,” however, and so although Hoffman was quite accurate in his portrayal, his character represents only a small percentage of the autistic population.
3. There is no treatment for autism
While there is no cure for autism, treatment options can offer a much improved quality of life for someone on the spectrum. Until recent decades many people with autism were institutionalized, due to lack of understanding about its cause and limited success with treatment methods. Today, behavior intervention programs provide children and adults with the necessary tools to increase self help skills, independence, communication, and social awareness. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) focuses on socially significant skills and tailors individualized treatment plans based on the principles of behavior and how it can be shaped. Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy organization, comments that ” Hundreds of published studies have shown that specific ABA techniques can help individuals with autism learn specific skills, such as how to communicate, develop relationships, play, care for themselves, learn in school, succeed at work, and participate fully and productively in family and community activities, regardless of their age. “
Medication can reduce symptoms typically associated with autism, such as anxiety, aggression, and compulsions. Some parents believe that their child shows improvement with certain diet limitations such as gluten restrictions, although this approach remains a controversial one.
4. People with autism can’t form social bonds
Many of us take for granted the social bonds we have formed with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Someone with autism typically does not feel a natural connection because of altered brain structures and social deficits that characterize the syndrome. However, there is little truth to the common belief that people with autism “live in their own world” and cannot form meaningful relationships.
Autism diagnoses fall on a spectrum, meaning that there are large variances in social awareness and abilities to form personal relationships. Early intervention with a child helps ensure that social skills are cultivated to their fullest potential, allowing for more enriching interactions as they get older. Most individuals with autism do value relationships with the people closest to them, usually family members. They also learn to value time spent with people who share similar interests or spend consistent, quality time with them. Although some people with autism may tend to distance themselves, or not seek out company, family and friends can work to change these behaviors. The remarkable Temple Grandin , an autistic woman who has achieved fame as a public speaker, author, and animal scientist implores, “ You have got to keep autistic children engaged with the world. You cannot let them tune out.
5. Someone with autism won’t ever live a “normal” life
If living a “normal” life is having a job, family, and friends, then people with autism are certainly capable of achieving this. Some highly functioning individuals can live on their own and care for themselves independently or with minimal assistance. Many autistic individuals are employed and actively involved in their communities. People with more severe forms of autism probably will never develop these skills, but does that automatically discount a “normal” life? Given that “normalcy” is such a relative and subjective notion, I believe that it makes much more sense to measure success in terms of one’s individual potential for growth and development.
At the school where I work we spent many months teaching a student to prepare for his bar-mitzvah by breaking down the necessary tasks (reading the prayers, speaking in front of a large group, etc.) into smaller, more manageable steps. When the day finally arrived, his family was so proud that he accomplished something that they previously had never thought possible. That day was not about autism, but about doing something special, and perhaps more importantly, something accustomed. Something “normal.”
Sources: Personal knowledge and experience
Retracted Autism Study an Elaborate Fraud, British Journal Finds. CNN
Interview with Dr. Temple Grandin. Autism-help.org