Fact or fiction? Common myths about autism explained
April is Autism Awareness Month. Is your knowledge of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) up-to-date?
Dr. Jeffrey Skowron, Regional Clinical Director for Autism Intervention Specialists in Worcester says there are many myths around autism, but they largely fall into two camps: treatment and causes.
Myth: Vaccines cause autism
This is one of the biggest myths about autism. This idea, based on research that has since been debunked and retracted by medical journals, took off after celebrity Jenny McCarthy claimed her son had autism because of vaccines.
“There’s no credible scientific evidence that autism is related to vaccines in any way,” said Dr. Skowron.
So why does the myth continue to have momentum? Dr. Skowron says that around the time parents start to see signs of autism in their children is around the time when they receive multiple vaccines.
“They will say that their child is having issues with certain aspects of their development, and they ask why is he or she acting this way. It’s just a coincidence that the two events—vaccinations and developing social skills—happen at this time. But frankly it’s hard for parents to diagnose social skills in a six-month-old because they really aren’t having social interactions yet.”
Myth: Autism is a disease
Autism is not a disease, it’s a collection of behaviors or symptoms, which makes it a syndrome.
“We aren’t sure of the underlying pathology or physical issues related to it. Although there is more evidence,” said Dr. Skowron. “There are several different presentations of the behavior we call autism. Most likely it’s a disorder of the brain.”
Because children display the signs of autism shortly after birth, researchers believe there’s a large genetic component which Dr. Skowron says the prevalence of autism with siblings and twins supports. There is a 90 percent likelihood that if one twin has autism, the other will too according to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Between siblings, there is a five percent chance that they will both be diagnosed with autism.
Myth: More people have autism than ever
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism. A decade ago, the rate was 1 in 150.
But while Dr. Skowron admits that it’s hard to say why those rates are higher, he says it’s not simply an increased prevalence of autism. “It’s a myth to say that more people have autism,” he said.
“It could be that we’re just finding it more often. Families are looking for the signs more, and they have better access to pediatricians, clinicians, and psychologists that are better able to diagnose them,” he said. “What you should really be saying is that more people are diagnosed with autism today than ever before.”
Myth: Treatments turn kids into robots
Some say that behavioral therapy, the recommended treatment for autism, is highly impersonal, which Dr. Skowron said “is simply not true.”
“People say it turns kids into robots,” said Dr. Skowron, who has been working in applied behavioral analysis for 20 years. “It seems very personal to me. Based on the needs of the kids you form a strong bond with the person. The families play a big role in the treatment, and they can have a great affect on the treatment of the child.”
Doctors typically prescribe antipsychotic medications to treat severe symptoms of autism, which can include anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“The best and most effective treatment for autism is applied behavior analysis,” said Dr. Skowron. “There is scientific evidence showing the effectiveness of treating autism this way. Any other methods just don’t have the same body of research toward them.”
Myth: There’s a cure for autism
There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, according to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, although there is research going toward this effort. While treatment can be very effective, the social deficits and symptoms are there throughout the person’s life.
“They can learn to compensate with in very effective ways to the point that other people might not even know,” said Dr. Skowron. “But whatever physical problems are in the brain of that person, those will remain throughout the person’s life. So people have to learn ways around that.”
Because of the varying degrees of autism, while some may require a supportive environment, people with autism can successfully live independently.
Myth: People with autism can’t love
Because those who are autistic can have an impaired ability to make friends or carry on a conversation, a common myth is that people with autism can’t love or show emotions such as empathy.
“They may have deficits in social interaction skills and in conveying those emotions to other people, but those emotions are there,” said Dr. Skowron. “There are some people that say if your child is diagnosed with autism, so they can never have a relationship—well that’s just not true. People with autism can have relationships, spouses, girlfriends, and boyfriends. There’s a variety and spectrum of abilities and deficits associated with autism, and people can display these to varying degrees.”
People with autism can go on to have jobs, relationships, and families with effective intervention therapies.
Myth: Foods can cause autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is largely a genetic disorder, and although researchers say environment does play a role in early development, there is not substantial medical evidence finding a relationship between autism and food. Despite this, some families try nutritional therapies like gluten-free diets to treat autism.
Children with autism who improve their behavior as a result of eliminating certain foods from their diets likely have a food allergy, said Dr. Skowron.
“For instance, if a child has a lactose allergy, then drinking milk will make them feel bad and it will probably interfere with their treatment or education, but it’s not because of the milk exacerbating the condition of autism, it’s because drinking the milk makes them feel bad because they’re allergic. Some parents think that a gluten-free diet helps their child with autism, and it may make the child feel better, but it’s not because the wheat or gluten causes autism, it’s because the child has a wheat allergy.”
Doctors recommend that any families following one of the controversial nutritional therapies should be sure to consult a nutritionist and closely follow the child’s nutritional status.
Get the facts:
“Things like treatment involving diet or avoiding vaccinations, avoiding certain foods, those just don’t have credible scientific evidence,” said Dr. Skowron. The true key to treating autism? He says start behavioral therapy intensively when the child is very young.
“If it’s started early, and we’re talking when they’re toddlers, we can see even in the most extreme cases there are huge differences by the time the child is a teenager depending on their function needs.”
To find resources for your family and friends, or to learn more about autism, find more information at:
The Autism Resource Center
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
Image1: A boy plays with seeds during therapy at the therapy and development center for autistic kids in the Asociacion Guatemalteca por el Autismo, or Guatemalan Association for Autism, building in Guatemala City March 13, 2014.The center is the only one in the country that specifically conducts programs for autistic children, according to the association.
Image2: Alexander Prentice, 5, of Burton, Mich., smiles as he searches for items at the bottom of a sand bin in the reinforcement room, which allows technicians to work with children on building on skill sets at Genesee Health System’s new Children’s Autism Center on Jan. 16, 2014 in Flint.