It’s an unfortunate reality that mental illness and neuro-developmental conditions are often much less respected and validated than physical illnesses for the simple reason that they can’t be seen or diagnosed with a screening or a blood test. However, what many people don’t realize is that these “invisible” disabilities can be as debilitating as physical disability.
Some examples of the mental and neurological disorders that are so often ignored and belittled include generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depressive disorders, and autism spectrum disorders.
And that’s just a few.
As someone with an autism diagnosis myself, I am saddened to hear how it is so often portrayed in society. There are a lot of misconceptions circulating about autism that I wish would be squashed, but for now, here are just a few things that I wish everyone knew about autism.
1. Not everyone with autism is the same. No one is a carbon-copy of anyone else, and those with autism are no exception. As Dr. Stephen Shore said: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
Autism is frequently defined as a “spectrum condition,” meaning that it affects everyone differently and to varying degrees. Even someone diagnosed with “high-functioning” or low-support needs autism (what used to be known as Asperger syndrome) will find that their functioning abilities fluctuate depending on factors such as circumstance, environment, stress level, etc.
2. Not everyone is “a little bit autistic.” Just because most people have quirks or have a few traits that are similar to the symptoms of ASD doesn’t mean that autism is not a real thing. Sure, many human beings have difficulty dealing with loud noises, struggle with social anxiety from time to time, and have hobbies that they’re really passionate about.
But people who have autism don’t just hate loud noises—they can cause debilitating sensory overload and intense irritation. We don’t just have social anxiety because we have low self-esteem or are depressed (although these are totally valid causes of anxiety)— we genuinely struggle to be understood by others and are often unsure of what to say or do, and would therefore rather avoid the situation altogether.
So, saying that we are all “a little bit autistic” is a bit like gate-keeping for people who actually are autistic.
3. We don’t look autistic any more than you look neurotypical. The catch-22 about having a mental illness or neurological disorder like autism is that no one can tell just by looking at you. But somehow, people seem to think that there is a certain look that people on the spectrum have– which just isn’t true.
Actually, a lot of the time, we’re super good at hiding it. This just goes to show you that you never really know what someone else is going through or what their unique struggles are.
4. We’re not all like Rain Man. Sure, Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 movie Rain Man was autistic, but what most people don’t realize is that he also had Savant syndrome and his talent with numbers was his splinter skill.
Not all autistic folks are savants, and not all savants are autistic. While the two often coincide, they’re not mutually exclusive. Many autistics do have special skills or abilities (such as hyperlexia), though they don’t reach the same level as someone with Savant syndrome. This is because autistic people, given the time and room to explore their passions, work very hard on developing a skill to mastery and not because they are born with savant abilities.
5. People with autism do, indeed, feel empathy. I was recently speaking with a coworker, and she admitted to believing the stereotype that people with autism are unable to empathize with others. Actually, the truth is often quite the opposite: many people on the spectrum feel empathy very deeply, they just don’t express it in the way that neurotypical people do.
It’s not that people with autism are incapable of feeling the empathy, it’s just that we may need a bit of prodding to be able to relate to someone’s situation if we’ve never been in that situation ourselves. Sometimes, we just need a bit of guidance in order to understand society’s expectations of empathetic behavior; although, we do feel unprompted empathy in other scenarios, often relating to animals.
I’ll do just about anything for my cat.
6. Meltdowns aren’t temper-tantrums. I can’t tell you how many times, as an undiagnosed autistic child, I was judged by adults and my peers for throwing a “temper-tantrum” or “freaking out” about seemingly menial things. Adults thought I was spoiled, and kids thought I was just plain weird.
The fact is that when autistic people (children or adults) get overwhelmed, they often have what’s called an autistic meltdown. No, it’s not a tantrum, and no, we’re not throwing a fit. We aren’t doing it to get what we want or to change our circumstances. We get overwhelmed and have an intense, often uncontrollable reaction to it. Sometimes this can get physical (kicking, biting, slamming doors, self-harm) if we feel cornered and aren’t given space; and other times, it’s just verbal.
I’m not making excuses, but I think it’s important for people to understand that when a child (or adult for that matter) experiences a meltdown, it is not coming from a place of bad intentions. It’s an uncontrollable neurological, medical expression of being overwhelmed and unable to self-regulate.
7. We’re not all good at math. This is just a stereotype perpetuated by the media. In fact, many licensed professionals even believe this stereotype. A lot of autistic characters on TV and in books are males who love math and science. And a lot do; don’t get me wrong. But just as many don’t.
If you know me at all, you know how completely awful I am at math. It’s a hilarious joke among my friends and family. Not.
It all comes down to the fact that those on the spectrum have special interests and pronounced abilities in certain areas. These areas could be math, music, language, art, etc.
8. Autism manifests itself differently in girls. According to several studies, ASD is more commonly diagnosed in males than females (about 1:4). In the United States, 1 in every 42 males is diagnosed, whereas only 1 in every 189 females is diagnosed.
However, it is debatable as to whether autism really is more common in males, or if females just do not display the “classic” symptoms and are therefore misdiagnosed. In fact, Hans Asperger originally thought that girls could not even be affected by autism, but he eventually changed his mind.
The problem is that autism, as we know it today, is primarily based on the male symptoms and because of that, doctors and psychologists often miss the more subtle symptoms that girls on the spectrum demonstrate, such as masking and appearing to be shy.
Instead, many girls are often misdiagnosed with disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, personality disorder, or bipolar disorder. While some of these disorders may indeed be co-existing, autism lies at the person’s core.
9. Vaccines do not cause autism. They just don’t. Thanks to Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a former British gastroenterologist, who wrote a paper in 1998 in which he stated that MMR vaccines caused autism, people started freaking out and stopped vaccinating their kids.
Since then, Wakefield has been discredited over and over again, but people still can’t get it out of their heads.
In 2013, a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “looked at the number of antigens (substances in vaccines that cause the body’s immune system to produce disease-fighting antibodies) from vaccines during the first two years of life. The results showed that the total amount of antigen from vaccines received was the same between children with ASD and those that did not have ASD.”
While Wakefield seems to be right about there being a connection between gastrointestinal issues and autism, it has nothing to do with vaccines.
In fact, in March 2019, the results of a new study on MMR vaccination performed in Denmark were released. Here’s what they found:
The study strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination. It adds to previous studies through significant additional statistical power and by addressing hypotheses of susceptible subgroups and clustering of cases.
10. Autism cannot (and should not) be cured. Autism cannot technically be “cured” because, in its essence, it is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects the brain’s structure and a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.
There are several therapies that can greatly benefit those with autism by easing challenging symptoms. Counseling and some therapies can also be helpful for autism-related issues, such as sleeping problems, dietary issues, and sensory processing disorder.
Certain types of medications and other treatments like CBD oil can also help control some of these co-occurring issues by reducing anxiety and inflammation, but no drug can “cure” autism.
Secondly, stating that the way that someone’s mind functions should be “fixed” can be pretty upsetting. Think about it: it’s the same mentality that perpetuates bullying of anyone who is even a little bit different from the norm.
In fact, many people wouldn’t change their autism even if they could, myself included. It makes us who we are, and it helps us see the world differently.
Different isn’t synonymous with bad. It just is what it is: different. If you meet someone with autism, treat them in a way that is appropriate for their age. Assume competence and don’t infantilize them.
We’re not faking it and we’re not trying to be difficult. We’re #differentnotless.