Contributor: Thomas Frazier, II, PhD
I see anxious parents every day. An autism diagnosis triggers tough questions and difficult emotions in parents who want nothing but the best for their kids.
Unfortunately, as the number of cases has risen, so has the amount of misinformation about autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Misinformation makes anxiety even worse. Separating fact from fiction can make a world of difference.
Take the common assumptions below, for example. Some are true — but even more are false.
Fiction. Autism is becoming more common as a diagnosis. But that’s partly because we’ve gotten better at diagnosing it. We can now spot high-functioning individuals with an ASD. Also, in the past autism was frequently missed in people with intellectual disabilities; now we know those disabilities often go hand-in-hand with autism. Research shows that there is increase in the number of children with an ASD, but it’s not a true epidemic.
Fiction. Push this thought out of your mind. It is unhelpful and untrue. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. There is so much research documenting differences in brain structure, development and processing for people with autism. We still have a lot to learn about autism, but we do know parents do not cause it.
Fact. When one child in a family has autism, there is an 18 percent higher chance that the first sibling will be diagnosed than in the typical population. When two children in a family have autism, the third child is 32 percent more likely to have it, too.
Fiction. Andrew Wakefield made this claim in 1998, and it spread. But his research was never replicated. In 2010, he was charged by a panel with dishonesty in his research. There is no scientific support to the idea that vaccines cause autism.
Fact. As many as 1,000 different genetic changes may affect how brain cells communicate in people with autism. More research is needed, but these changes may be tied to important chemicals in the brain such as serotonin — which plays a big role in mood and happiness — or to the actual brain structure, among other possibilities.
Fiction. As tough as it is to hear, autism is a lifelong disorder. However, people with autism can live productive, meaningful lives. Children who are identified early and receive intervention, such as Applied Behavior Analysis, may have excellent outcomes. Their symptoms change over time as they develop and respond to intervention. Families can learn ways to support their children’s progress. People with autism are lifelong learners — much like the rest of us.
Fiction. There are many anecdotes about diet affecting autism, but research doesn’t support the idea. Children with autism who have food allergies or digestive issues do benefit from special diets, much like typical children with these issues. However, be sure to talk with your doctor before trying any new diet.
These are just a few of the many misconceptions about autism. In my next post, I’ll tackle myths about people with autism, from their social lives (which can be rich) to their feelings (which can be hurt).