Mental Well-Being

Debunking some common myths about autism for National Autism Awareness Month

March 22, 2021

April is National Autism Awareness Month. Improve your awareness by finding out the truth underlying these common myths.

The Myth: Autism is caused by vaccines

What’s Real: Former doctor Andrew Wakefield  made this claim in a 1998 paper that drew connections between the MMR (measels-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism. His findings were immediately challenged, but also found support–especially among American celebrities. His conclusions were eventually disproved, and he lost his medical license in 2010.

The Myth: Autism is a mental illness

What’s Real: It’s a neurological/developmental disorder. The Autism Society defines autism, also called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as a complex, lifelong developmental disability that can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships, and self-regulation. 

The Myth: Autism is treated with medication

What’s Real: Autism itself is not treated with medication. Certain symptoms associated with autism may benefit from pharmaceutical treatment, but there is no medication that treats it directly.

The Myth: People with autism can’t feel emotion or empathy

What’s Real: Research by Rebecca Brewer and Jennifer Murphy published in Spectrum debunks this myth. There is a higher incidence of alexithymia among people with ASD than among neurotypicals. Alexithymia is difficulty recognizing feelings, and there are varying degrees of it. While alexithymia occurs in 10% of the general population, nearly half of all people with autism also have alexithymia. Even so, someone with both autism and alexithymia is still capable of feeling and responding to emotion.

The Myth: People With Autism Don’t Want Friends

What’s Real: Autistic people overwhelmingly report they want friends. The difficulty they have processing social information is often misinterpreted by others as disinterest or rudeness. Psychologist Matthew Lerner says in Scientific American, “Nothing is impossible in terms of friendship for people with autism, but it does perhaps take a different route.”

The Myth: People With Autism don’t have a sense of humor

What’s Real: They do. Thomas Frazier, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, points out that the types of humor that appeal to people with ASD vary with the individual—just like with neurotypicals. Look to Asperger’s Are Us, the BBC podcast 1800 Seconds on Autism, comedian Hannah Gadsby, and comedian Michael McCreary for proof. Stand-up comedy is an effective creative outlet for many with ASD. Read first person accounts by Siobhan Neely and Mark Grimshaw.