Debunking the Myths About Autism

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Q. We recently found out that my son, Freddy, has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. After accepting the fact that things will be more challenging for him socially and academically (he is also learning disabled), I told my friends and family about the diagnosis. The first thing my mother mentioned was, “maybe he’s just quirky,” and my sister gave her two-cents stating that a “disproportionate number of mass murderers are on the spectrum,” and that “I better get him therapy right away.” My best friend, Rebecca, who I thought would be compassionate, said “maybe he’ll outgrow it.” Since these are my friends and family, who supposedly care about me and my son, maybe I should take what they’re saying with a grain of salt. Based on your experience with special needs families, what do you think?

A. One in every 68 children today is being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with kids with ASD in the news, on TV shows, and in your child’s classroom. ASD is so well known these days that many Americans, without a medical or psychology degree, fancy themselves as experts on the subject.

But, don’t despair. Much of what many think of as facts, are really only myths. In answering your question, I will take this opportunity to dispel five of the most common myths, including those you had heard from your family and friend.

Please note: ASD is a spectrum disorder, meaning no two people on the spectrum are exactly the same, and many exhibit different characteristics that make them unique.

Myth #1: People with autism lack empathy

In the past, those with ASD were depicted in clinical literature and in the media as “emotionless,” and “incapable of compassion,” akin to sociopaths. In reality, however, people with ASD are often highly concerned with the feelings of the people around them, sometimes to a paralyzing degree.

Your sister mentioned an often-repeated assertion by media figures, such as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, that a disproportionate number of mass murderers are on the spectrum. While it’s true that some are, it is also true that many are not.

When it comes to exhibiting empathy, often those with ASD struggle to make sense of social signals, including subtle shifts in facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. For many children on the spectrum, the use of “social stories” – visual representations of interpersonal interactions – can help accelerate the learning process.

Myth #2: Maybe he’s just quirky

According to Lorna Wing, a pioneer in the field of childhood developmental disorders who advanced understanding of autism worldwide, every trait that is characteristic of autism is also possessed by non-autistic people (i.e., “neurotypical” people), to varying degrees. Autistic people”self-stimulate”; neurotypical people fidget. Autistic people have “special interests” and “obsessions”; neurotypicals have hobbies and passions. Autistic people have “sensory sensitivities”; neurotypicals just can’t stand wearing polyester. That means there’s a huge gray area between autism and non-autism.

However, ASD is a disability, and those who are diagnosed with it meet certain criteria, as established by the DSM-V. For those who meet the criteria, ASD is a profound and pervasive disorder that affects nearly all aspects of life, as anyone with a diagnosis (or a loved one who has one) knows.

Myth #3: Autism is an epidemic

In 1970, the estimated prevalence of autism among schoolchildren in the United States was 1 in 10,000. Now it’s one in 68. Although the numbers have gone up dramatically, ASD is not an epidemic.

In reality, the primary contributor to the dramatic spike in ASD in recent decades is the fact that a broad range of children, teenagers, and adults on the spectrum are now able to get diagnosed. Until the 1980s, there was no “autism spectrum” as a diagnostic category. Autism was defined very narrowly, and mistakenly thought of as rare.

In fact, throughout the 1980s, a parent often had to bring their child to 9 or 10 specialists before finally obtaining an autism diagnosis (which many couldn’t afford to do). And girls with autism were virtually “non-existent” to those in the psychiatric field until the end of the 20th century.

Myth #4: Children can outgrow ASD

According to the Wall Street Journal, “evidence is growing that some children with autism appear to grow out of their symptoms and recover fully.” The article states that clinicians and parents have described patients and loved ones whose autism symptoms seem to disappear completely. However, these individuals haven’t been closely studied, making it hard to determine whether they had autism in the first place or were misdiagnosed. The article points out that possibility of recovery is spurring interest, but more research needs to be done. Please also read our article, “Can Someone Recover from Autism?” for more details.

On this subject, even if children cannot “outgrow ASD,” early intervention and therapy are key to treat the symptoms of the disorder.

Myth # 5: Children with autism are either “intellectually disabled” or “savants.”

When researchers took a look at the long-standing assumption that children with ASD suffer from intellectual disability or are savants, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man,” they found it was far from the truth. Like any human being, each person has skills that they are better at than others, but not all are savants. At the other extreme, some kids on the spectrum are harder to test than others, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in intelligence.

Hope these truths provide some clarity for you, and help to dispel the myths that you have heard.

Special Needs Planning

Parents of those with special needs, including ASD, are tasked with planning for their children throughout their lifetimes, as many of them will outlive their parents but might not be able to support themselves and live independently. As a parent or guardian, you want to ensure that your child with special needs will remain financially secure even when you are no longer there to provide support. A Special Needs Trust is a vehicle that provides assets from which a disabled person can maintain his or her quality of life, while still remaining eligible for needs-based programs that will cover basic health and living expenses.

If you have a loved one who will likely need care for life, it’s important to provide legal protections for him or her. Farr Law Firm, P.C. can guide you through this process. Please call us to make an appointment for a consultation:

Fairfax Special Needs Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Special Needs Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Special Needs Law: 301-519-8041
DC Special Needs Law: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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