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Misconceptions And Myths About Autism

While awareness of neurodiversity is increasing, there are still many misconceptions and myths about autism that can be frustrating for people with an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) diagnosis.

For instance, autism stereotypes such as, ‘everyone is on the autism spectrum’ can cause confusion around symptoms, what autism actually is, as well as devalue what autistic people experience. In other cases, myths about autism can actually exacerbate public fears, such as the superstition that vaccines cause autism.

In fact, Dr Alice Sidberry, Specialist Neurodiversity Criminal Justice Consultant at Creased Puddle, spoke of a need to change the way we think and talk about the autistic experience:

“There is still a long way to go in reframing our understanding of the autistic experience. With the right information, and challenge towards narratives that currently exist, more welcome conversations about our perspectives towards neurodivergence may occur.”

To do our part in helping move the conversation along, we challenge the myth of what autism is caused by, as well as discuss common questions, such as whether everyone is autistic or if one can grow out of autism.

1. Is autism caused by vaccines?

One common myth is that autism can be caused by vaccines. However, there is no scientific evidence at all to support this misconception.

In fact, studies conducted into whether you can get autism from common vaccines, such as the MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) jab, show there is no evidence vaccines cause autism.

While the actual cause of autism is not yet known for certain, it is believed to be caused in part by the wiring of the brain, making it a developmental disability. So, while some research has pointed to genetics playing a role in autism developing in children, autism itself is not a genetic disorder.

2. Can you grow out of autism?

Some believe that ASC is a childhood condition, and you are able to grow out of autism. But this is actually a harmful misconception about autism.

While manageable, autism is a lifelong condition that’s typically diagnosed in children, though that diagnosis can also come in adult life too. That’s because getting an autism diagnosis can be quite a complicated experience, often requiring a multi-disciplinary team, including GPs, paediatricians, schools, and health visitors, to agree on the right diagnosis.

An autism diagnosis for women and girls can be particularly difficult. In fact, one study found autism in young girls is typically diagnosed around the later age of 10, which might be because autism manifests differently in women and young girls.

But with an early diagnosis and a bespoke treatment plan, autistic people can help minimise potential disruption to their day-to-day lives, no matter how old they are. If you or a loved one is showing signs of autism, always speak to a healthcare provider to better understand the diagnosis process, as well as receive advice and support on how to manage potential symptoms in the meantime.

3. Are autistic people smart?

Autistic people in movies and television are often portrayed as smarter than others, able to solve complex calculations instantly. And while this may seem like a ‘positive’ myth about autism, it is a myth nonetheless and can be quite damaging for autistic people.

Of course, autistic people can display above average intelligence, but it is important to note intelligence itself is complex, and accurately measuring such constructs through tests is difficult. And though there are studies that show autistic people may have increased perception skills, this is just one factor of an IQ test and does not correlate to higher intelligence overall.

In fact, other studies looking at levels of intelligence in autistic people found 45% had an average IQ, while 32% had a slightly above average IQ. On the whole, while autistic people can be ‘smart’, it is not solely because of their ASC.

However, while an autistic person may not inherently have a higher IQ as a result of their ASC, they might exhibit certain behaviours that aid learning. For example, a compulsion to repeat behaviours could see a child with autism master a task such as stacking blocks more quickly, though this may vary from person to person.

4. Is everyone on the autism spectrum?

Autism is categorised on a spectrum, with people displaying different severities in symptoms. This has led to the autism stereotype that everyone is on the autism spectrum.

In 2020, a study from the UK government found that only 1 in 100 people in the country are autistic, though it did note that autism is under-recognised. As such, not everyone has autism or is on the autism spectrum.

In terms of the autism spectrum, it simply means that every autistic person has different needs. Some autistic people need little or no external support, while others might need help from a carer every day.

However, some autistic behaviours can mirror other conditions, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or dysregulation, so it can sometimes be tricky to get an accurate autism diagnosis. This is why you often need a multi-disciplinary approach to autism and its diagnosis.

For support with your own autism or the needs of an autistic child, you can seek help from charities and local support groups. Additionally, talking to friends and family about your struggles is a great way to help alleviate stress or any wider concerns.

5. Is autism a learning disability?

Another common misconception is that autism is a learning disability, which is not true either. From a medical perspective, learning disabilities have specific criteria and autism does not fall under this umbrella term.

A learning disability is a lifelong neurological condition that impacts the way a person learns new information. And while the NHS reports that 29% of people with a learning disability are also diagnosed as autistic, autism itself is not considered to be a learning disability.

However, autism can still impact learning. That’s because autism affects how people communicate and interact with the world around them, which includes speaking, listening, and concentration. As a result, some autistic people may struggle to process new information quickly or accurately, though this may not be the case for every autistic person.

In order to ensure an autistic child gets the right care and educational needs, it’s important to speak to their teachers. As some children with autism experience dysregulation and difficulty expressing their feelings within a school environment, receiving 1-1s and targeted support can establish and grow abilities within identified skill gaps.

Additionally, the family may want to be considered for a Statutory Assessment for an Education, Health, and Care Plan. It is important to note that children and young people are only able to attend a special school, or a specialist unit, if an assessment determines that is the most appropriate provision.

6. Is autism a mental health disorder?

While autism itself is not a mental health disorder, it can have a big impact on mental health. That’s because, understandably, navigating the world with a stigmatised condition can lead to increased mental health difficulties.

In fact, research conducted by autism research charity Autistica, found 8 in 10 autistic people also have a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. For comparison, 1 in 6 adults in the UK suffer from similar mental health disorders, which is still significant but not as common as with autistic people.

However, by seeking and accepting help for autism, you can help minimise the mental toll it might take. Particularly in the case of children with autism, schools can often assist with support from a dedicated mental health team, which can help manage the mental wellbeing of children with autism.

Regardless of age, living with autism or caring for someone with autism can take a mental toll. That’s why it’s important to seek advice from your health care provider, as well as establish a trusted network of family and friends who can provide support and help alleviate stress.

You can also find plenty of support online or with local groups, where you can talk to people experiencing similar struggles and receive helpful advice.

Caring for an autistic person? Or perhaps you’re looking for advice for yourself? As a Benenden Health member, you can access Neurodiversity and Disability Advice Service through our Care Planning and Social Care Advice line. A dedicated adviser can offer help and advice on neurodiverse or disability needs, including autism, ADHD, and both learning and physical disabilities.

Alternatively, there are many UK-based sources and charities you can get in touch with for help with an autism diagnosis. Whether it be National Autistic Society, the NHS, or Ambitious about Autism, help is available to you, should you need it.

This article has been supported by information from our partner Grace Consulting .

Medically reviewed by Cheryl Lythgoe on May 2024.