5 Myths of Autism What we know and what we are still learning

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States with a growth rate of more than 1,100 percent, according to the Autism Society. But ASD is still greatly misunderstood by the public.

What is ASD?

Autism is a complex developmental disability and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism, which typically appears during the first three years of life, is a “spectrum disorder” that affects individuals to varying degrees. There is no known single cause of autism.

According to the Autism Society, a few signs to look for are:
• delay in or lack of spoken language
• repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms
• little or no eye contact
• lack of interest in peer relationships
• lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
• persistent fixation on parts of objects

While autism is not curable, it is treatable. Early diagnosis and intervention, including behavioral treatments or medication, can significantly improve social and educational outcomes.

MYTH NO. 1: Individuals with autism are intellectually disabled and lack communication skills.

ASD affects people in different ways, especially with communication. Some children may be nonverbal or nearly nonverbal; others may be extremely verbal with rich vocabularies and high reading skills.

For children with autism who are unable to verbally engage, there are alternative forms of communication available. A recent study supported by the group Autism Speaks concluded that the use of American Sign Language for children with autism can be an effective form of communication.

Approximately 10 percent of children with ASD also can show extremely high abilities in specific areas, such as math, music and memorization. Over the last 20 years, college enrollment rates among students with disabilities have tripled, and almost half (about 44 percent) of children identified with ASD have average-to-above-average intellectual ability.

MYTH NO. 2: Autism affects both boys and girls at the same rate.
Based on genetics and diagnosis, autism does not affect boys and girls the same way or have the same percentage rates. Autism is about 4.5 times more common among boys (one in 42) than among girls (one in 189), according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, diagnosis referrals for boys versus girls are closer to 10-to-1, likely meaning many girls are not being tested at a young enough age to benefit from early intervention.

ASD also displays differently in girls than boys and affects the rate of diagnosis, especially for girls on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum.
Genetics may also explain why boys are more likely to be on the spectrum. One model studied by the CDC suggests that “girls have a higher tolerance for harmful genetic mutations and therefore require a larger number of them than boys to reach the diagnostic threshold of a developmental disorder.” At the same time, because the female mutation threshold is higher, girls tend to fall on the more severe end of the spectrum when they are diagnosed.

MYTH NO. 3: Most autism care costs are covered by insurance.

Autism therapy is excluded from coverage by many insurance plans. If families do have a plan that covers some of the physical cost of autism, there are still significant behavioral costs and other economic burdens that add up to thousands of dollars.

Intensive behavioral interventions can cost $40,000 to $60,000 per child per year. There are also a number of direct and indirect costs with medical care, special education, lost parental productivity and more that cause a significant economic burden on families.

Roughly half of the U.S. currently requires coverage for treatments of autism spectrum disorders; but medical costs for children with ASD are estimated to be six times higher than for children without ASD.

MYTH NO. 4: Autism is caused by “bad parenting.”

In the 1950s, a theory called the “refrigerator mother hypothesis” arose suggesting that autism was caused by mothers who lacked emotional warmth. Medical and behavioral care providers told parents the reason their child displayed poor social skills was because the child failed to receive warm and loving interactions with the parents, particularly the child’s mother. It is now understood that this is not true — autism is not caused by a failure to properly bond to a parent. Yet, some parents still encounter the stigma.

There is no proven correlation between vaccinations and autism,
but many myths about autism still lie in the hypothesis that vaccinations cause autism. The increased rate of autism diagnosis has fueled some concerns that environmental exposures, like vaccines, might be to blame.

Medical professionals are working to understand the neurological disorder, but to date, there is no one known cause of autism.

MYTH NO. 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder is uncommon.

The increased rate of autism likely is driven by a broadened diagnostic criteria and increased awareness. We are now seeing more and more children being diagnosed on the autism spectrum, with 23 percent of households having at least one child receiving Individualized education program services in his or her local school.

The Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring reported that approximately one in 68 U.S. children has been identified with ASD, and it can be more common among individuals with affected relatives. Parents who have a child with ASD have a 2 to 18 percent chance of having a second child who is also affected. bc

Erin Stauder, M.S., CCC-SLP is a licensed speech-language pathologist and executive director of The Hearing and Speech Agency, a nonprofit organization that provides hearing, speech and language services and advocates for people of all ages with communication disorders/disabilities.

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