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Debunking 10 Common Myths about Autism

Why these myths are so harmful and how you can promote acceptance and inclusion by knowing the facts

Debunking 10 Common Myths about Autism

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When my son was a child, I was told he couldn't be autistic because he learned to read and write with his peers and was cheerful and outgoing. Some people speak loudly to him even though he's not deaf. And I still hear comments that shock me, like vaccines cause autism or that it's contagious.

It's important that we, parents and caregivers of autistic children, as well as our children themselves, fight back with facts.

In celebration of World Autism Month in April, Autism Speaks and Autism Speaks Canada launched their Fearless campaign to spread awareness about autism, promote acceptance and inclusion, and stand united against myths and disinformation.

As part of the campaign, they have named five inaugural Champions of Change. These young autistic adults represent a wide array of experiences, diversity, and support needs. They are sharing their stories of adversity and resilience, hardship and success, and fearlessly speaking out across North America to advance meaningful change.

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Alyssa Chapman Alyssa Chapman

I had the privilege of interviewing Champion of Change Alyssa Chapman, along with Autism Speaks Canada's Programming Manager Carly Greenberg, to obtain their responses to common myths:

Myth 1: Autism is caused by poor parenting

Autism is not caused by parenting style. Research suggests that autism develops from a combination of genetic and environmental influences. It's important to not confuse causes with contributing factors. There is no one "cause" of autism, but rather multiple factors that might contribute to a person being autistic. As Alyssa says, "Autism just is. Period."

Myth 2: Autism is primarily a childhood condition; children can grow out of it

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental difference. Alyssa's journey of discovering, accepting and embracing her autism didn't begin until she was 29 years old. Abilities, skills and how autistic characteristics present can change over time, depending on circumstances and environment.

Myth 3: Autism can be cured

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Alyssa emphasizes that "Autism cannot be cured. And autism doesn't need to be cured." Autism is not a disease; instead, it's a lifelong neurodevelopmental difference in which autistic people perceive the world, think and interact with others in unique ways. Many in the autistic community view autism as a core piece of their identity that should be accepted and celebrated.

two parents and child sitting with a therapist iStock

Myth 4: Autism gives people special abilities, talents and superpowers

While autism is often associated with particular strengths and talents, such as exceptional memory, attention to detail and proficiency in specific areas like music, art, mathematics or technology, not all autistic individuals possess these abilities. Strengths can vary significantly from person to person. Alyssa adds that for far too long, autistic people have been put in a box. Let's remember that each individual -- autistic or not -- is unique with their capabilities and talents.

Myth 5: Most autistic people have intellectual or learning disabilities

Approximately 30% of autistic people experience co-occurring intellectual disabilities. This subset of the autistic community has unique needs that often require specialized support and services.

Learning disabilities affect one or more ways a person takes in, stores or uses information. They come in many forms and affect people with varying levels. There is significant overlap in the traits of autistic people and those with learning disabilities, such as social interaction and sensory processing differences.

Myth 6: Non-speaking autistic children cannot understand or listen to what's being said around them

Autistic people may be non-speaking, meaning they do not speak or use words to communicate. But, as Alyssa points out, that doesn't mean they can't communicate in other ways. It's very common for autistic people to have cognitive abilities that far exceed their speaking abilities, and many autistic people report understanding what is being said around them, even if they don't communicate verbally.

Myth 7: You can tell someone is autistic by looking at them

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Autism cannot be determined by outward appearance. Autistic characteristics present differently in everyone. Some autistic people have more observable traits, but for others, autism is genuinely an "invisible" condition. Many individuals like Alyssa are adept at "masking" or hiding their autistic traits to fit in with neurotypical society.

mom and son sitting at a table doing homework, son with head in his hands looking frustrated iStock

Myth 8: Autistic individuals cannot show empathy or other emotions

Alyssa is a highly empathetic person herself. While it is true that autistic people often have a more challenging time reading social cues and recognizing another person's emotional state (called cognitive empathy), this does not necessarily demonstrate a lack of affective empathy -- the ability to feel another's emotional state and a drive to respond to it. Autistic people may feel other people's emotions more intensely and overwhelmingly than non-autistic people, which can lead to shut-down and withdrawal behaviour.

Myth 9: Autistic people don't like to be social. They prefer to be alone and have great difficulty forming friendships and relationships

This is a common myth. There is often a strong desire to connect and engage, but differences in interaction skills and worries about judgment from others can significantly interfere with navigating the social world. As Alyssa says, "If you don't feel accepted just showing up as you are, this myth reinforces the perception that autistic people are anti-social.

Myth 10: Most autistic people cannot work or live independently

A spectrum of supports may be needed throughout an individual's life to address unique strengths and challenges. With the right supports, many autistic people work, marry, have children, live independently and thrive in later life. Alyssa works in planning and advocacy for a consulting firm and lives independently with her fiancé and stepson.

Alyssa is proudly "growing into her autism". She sees her position as a Champion of Change as one of privilege and joy to use her voice and advocate for her community. Like her fellow Champions, she is inspirational. They are all championing autism awareness and acceptance and lighting the way towards greater inclusion, acceptance and belonging.

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Our children's voices need to be heard. Different, not less.

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