The truth about 5 common autism myths

The movie Rain Man has a lot to answer for when it comes to the public’s understanding of what autism is – and isn’t.

April is Autism Awareness Month, making this the ideal time to bust a handful of common misconceptions about the disorder that affects one in 100 Australians.

Amaze, the peak body for autistic people and their families in Victoria, refers to April as Autism Acceptance Month because research shows that while 98 per cent of Australians are aware of autism, only one in three say they know how to support an autistic person.

“Unfortunately, the ‘Rain Man’ stereotype may lead people to incorrectly believe that all autistic people are savants,” says Amaze chief executive Fiona Sharkie.

“This isn’t true, as autism and savant syndrome, which is very rare, are separate conditions. Plus, no two autistic people are the same. Like all people, autistic people have diverse and varied strengths.”

Experts break down a handful of other myths that swirl about autism.

Myth #1: Autism can be prevented

“There are so many theories about what causes autism and therefore what you can do to prevent it, but none of them stack up when you look at the science,” says Elizabeth Sarian from Autism Awareness Australia.

“Autism isn’t caused by a particular parenting style or something that occurs during pregnancy.

“And it isn’t caused by vaccinations, which is really important to stress, particularly as COVID vaccines are being rolled out.

“The best understanding we have from research about what causes autism is that it’s predominantly genetic, or in other words, it’s just the way you’re born.”

Myth #2: Autism can be cured

“One of the biggest and most damaging misconceptions about autism is that it can be cured,” says Fiona.

“There is no cure for autism and the myth that there is, is both harmful to autistic people and can be a trigger of false hope in the autism community.

“Another myth is that children ‘grow out’ of autism. People are born autistic and remain so all their lives, making it very simply, a part of who that person is.”

Myth #3: Autistic people lack empathy and don’t experience the full range of emotions

Research proves people with autism are capable of feeling the full spectrum of emotions.

In fact, Elizabeth says autistic people can get overloaded with emotions, due to how intensely they feel them.

“They may however, struggle to articulate or express their emotions in the expected or socially accepted way,” she says.

“This can be misconstrued as not feeling or experiencing a particular emotion, when in reality, it’s just that their reaction is different. It doesn’t make someone with autism any less empathetic.”

Myth #4: Autism is a mental health condition

It’s not. “Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects the way autistic people perceive, communicate and interact with the world,” says Fiona.

“Being autistic means that someone’s brain is simply ‘wired’ differently than a non-autistic brain. Autism itself is not a mental health condition.

“However, current evidence indicates that 50 to 70 per cent of autistic people also experience mental health conditions including anxiety and depression, often due to their sensory sensitivities and challenges with social communication, but also due to the stigma and discrimination they often face by the broader community.”

Myth #5: Autism is much more common in boys

The estimated ratio of autistic males to females is 3:1, but that’s only half the story.

“Autistic women are often or more likely to be misdiagnosed, or diagnosed later, than autistic boys and men due to an ongoing systemic failure to identify and diagnose autistic girls and women,” says Fiona.

“This failure can be attributed to the lack of recognition and understanding on the differences in how autism presents in girls and women compared to boys and men, as well as historic gender biases in autism screening and diagnostic tools.”

Pleasingly though, Fiona says the understanding of how autism presents in women and girls continues to improve.

“For some, the common signs and symptoms are subtle and may be misread, such as a young girl being viewed as ‘shy’,” she says.

Amaze actively works on ensuring improved access to diagnosis, services and supports for girls and women with autism, including developing a resource that helps autistic women identify mental health concerns and communicate with their GP.

Could it be autism?

Autism can be diagnosed at any age and while autistic people commonly experience differences around social communication, behaviour and thinking and learning, the “typical signs” of autism can differ between life stages.

For example while difficulties with sleep and toilet training, developing an obsessive interest in certain toys and marked repetitive movements may be signs of autism in pre-schoolers, in school-aged children and teenagers signs can include having few or no real friends, not being able to interpret non-verbal communication, issues with conversation and needing to follow routines to feel secure.

Common characteristics of autism in girls include a special interest in animals, art and literature, an inability to control emotions and a tendency to mimic others to fit in socially.

You can learn more about the signs of autism in girls here and across the lifespan here.

For more information, contact your GP or get in touch with Autism Connect, a national autism helpline delivered by Amaze.