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Autism Spectrum Disorder Myths and Rumours

An ongoing series of informational entries

Myths about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

March 15, 2017

There are literally hundreds of myths and misconceptions about autism. Here are some of the more popular ones.

Autism is the childhood form of schizophrenia

Some early researchers believed that autism was the childhood form of schizophrenia. This explains why it was sometimes called 'infantile psychosis.' However we now have evidence that autism is distinct from schizophrenia, with different causes and effects.

Autism is caused by a lack of maternal affection or by bad parenting

Professor Bruno Bettelheim believed that autism was caused by a lack of maternal affection. This led to the concept of the 'refrigerator mother' i.e. a mother who was emotionally distant. This theory has since been disproved.

There is clear evidence from research that autism is not caused by bad parenting or a lack of affection from parents, but from a difference in the way the brain develops before the child is born. Most mothers and fathers of children with autism are extremely caring and loving parents. 

Autism is caused by the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine

The idea that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine was first suggested by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in a research study published in 1998. However this study has since been shown to be seriously flawed and the flaws in that study have by now been pointed out multiple times and Dr Wakefield’s theory has been discredited.There have been many studies which show that there appears to be no causative link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  

The myth probably persists because of an issue of timing. The MMR vaccine is usually administered around the age of two; the symptoms of autism often start to become clear at around two and a half – and these symptoms sometimes include ‘regression’, that is, losing skills they previously had and becoming more withdrawn. It’s easy to assume that the one caused the other, but the science suggests that this isn’t what’s happened.

Doctors advise that parents do make sure their children get the MMR as measles, mumps and rubella can be very dangerous. 

Autism can be cured

Autism is a lifelong condition and there is currently no documented cure for autism.  Unless there is a specific medical condition causing autistic symptoms the concept of being able to cure is not appropriate as autism is a term used to describe a range, or spectrum, of developmental conditions with no known cause. 

It is also the case that individuals with autism may have particular abilities that are of huge benefit to society and may have superior technical, analytical or creative abilities. Individuals with autism respond very well to structured early intervention, education and vocational placements that focus on the unique learning style of these students.  Early behavior-based interventions have positive effects on some children with autism and less note-worthy effects on other children. Early services need to be based on individual children's needs and learning styles, not based on programs being sold as "cures" for every child with ASD. Services for adults with the features of autism need to be carefully individualized to the adult.

Everybody with autism is the same

Each person on the autism spectrum is a unique individual, with individual abilities and needs.

People with autism are all savants

A savant is someone who has a severe developmental delay as well as extraordinary mental abilities not found in most people. However most people with autism do not have extraordinary mental abilities. Most have average or below average IQ.   It is estimated that 10% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder may have special abilities in areas like music, art, mathematical calculations, memory and manual dexterity. The majority however, may have areas of high performance that relate to their special interests or obsessions. These skills are often referred to as 'splinter skills', as they are often not consistent with skills in other areas of development.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder avoid social contact and self-isolate.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are often keen to make friends but may find this difficult and lack the ability to spontaneously develop effective social interaction skills.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder cannot lead independent and successful lives Given appropriate education, many students with autism will grow up to be successful contributors to society.  Educational and adult services delivered to a people with ASD must be specifically designed for each person. Many people with ASD do the best when their services are individualized to them, not designed to be the same for a whole group. Remember that the "I" in IEP or IHP stands for "individualized." (The outcome for education for all children is to be able to belong to the community and contribute. These goals are often best met when the child with an ASD is educated in a community school with access to the typical children who will become the community of the future.)

People with autism do not make eye contact.

When persons with autism feel relaxed and confident with the communication partner, eye contact can be quite spontaneous. It is NEVER a good idea to force a person with autism to have eye contact with you.

People with autism cannot talk.

Communication is more than talking. Some students with autism will develop speech seemingly effortlessly, but will require help to communicate appropriately with their peers. Others will require assistance to communicate their basic needs and wants, using a combination of words, gestures, and augmentative communication systems such as PECS.

Autism can be outgrown.

Children do not 'outgrow' autism but symptoms may lessen or change as the child develops and receives appropriate interventions.

People with autism do not have feelings or empathy and don't show affection.

People with autism can and do give affection. However, due to differences in sensory processing and social understanding, the display of affection may appear different from typical people. Understanding and acceptance of these differences is the key.  People with autism can be very compassionate and care deeply about others – in fact, the clarity of vision that autism sometimes gives mean that some people with autism are about the most principled and socially conscious people you’ll ever meet. What people with autism struggle with is fitting their feelings of sympathy and caring into everyday interactions.

Autism can make it difficult to pick up on someone’s expressions, body language and tone of voice – which means that they might care a great deal about someone’s feelings once they know what they are, but need a bit more explicit communication before they can get a good grip on that.