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Autism Myths: 6 Incorrect Assumptions About People On The Autism Spectrum

04/02/2017 10:58 EDT | Updated 04/02/2017 11:40 EDT

When Hamilton mom Tracy Lamourie was telling her son Cassidy about World Autism Awareness Day, she noticed he didn’t seem very excited about the assembly that would be held at school, or even about the CN Tower being lit up in blue in support of autism awareness.

"I started reflecting on how our kids always hear people refer to them as autistic. They hear it whispered behind their backs, they hear their caregivers tell others who might not understand certain behaviours, ‘It’s because he’s autistic.' They always hear it as a negative,” Lamourie says. She realized it must be confusing for kids on the spectrum, like her then-11-year-old son, and decided to try to reframe it.

"April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day — a day to show love and support for the one in 68 Canadian children who are on the autism spectrum."

"I wanted to get his attention and gain his interest in talking about World Autism Day  because it's important that he understands it’s meant for love and acceptance,” Lamourie says. "So I said ‘Hey, you are Au…SOME! It's world AWESOME day! It’s really the AWESOME Spectrum, right?” Cassidy’s eyes lit up, she says, and for her family the term “the awesome spectrum” stuck.

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day — a day to show love and support for the one in 68 Canadian children (and many adults as well) who are on the autism spectrum, and to raise funds for related organizations. One way to show that support is to learn about the spectrum disorder and get information that will help you counter the many harmful myths that are still pervasive about autism and people on the spectrum.

Here are six common, but incorrect, myths about autism.

1. Myth: People who can’t talk don’t understand what you’re saying.

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Reality: There are many people with autism who are non-verbal but completely comprehend language. They are just unable to communicate their own feelings about what they’re hearing with words, says Pasadena, California-based psychotherapist Natalie Moore. "Keeping this in mind, treat an individual with autism who cannot speak the same way you would any other person,” Moore says. "In other words, don't talk about them like they aren't there."

2. Myth: People on the spectrum aren’t interested in relationships with others.

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Reality: "Whether it be romantic relationships or just friendships, I have worked with very few individuals on the spectrum that were not interested in maintaining at least a few friends,” says psychologist John Garrison. People on the spectrum may have challenges reading non-verbal cues from other people, maintaining conversations, or comprehending body language, but these challenges don’t mean they aren’t trying or aren’t interested in connecting with others.

3. Myth: People with autism aren’t smart.

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Reality: All people, including those on the autism spectrum, have a variety of intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are better at math or struggle with reading, for example. One person may have artistic aptitude, while another is great at building computers or fixing cars. The same is true of people on the spectrum, says Annette Nunez, an autism expert and founder of Breakthrough Interventions, a program that provides autism therapy services in Denver, Colorado.

“Individuals with autism [can] have the ability to hyper focus on one thing. This sometime allows them to become very proficient at the one thing they are interested in,” Nunez says. "For example, I have had several clients who have become amazing pianists and singers due to the fact they have an amazing ability to memorize songs, notes, etc."

4. Myth: Everyone with autism is a genius in a certain area.

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Reality: Perhaps the flip side of the previous myth is the assumption that everyone on the spectrum has what’s called a “splinter skill”: an exception area of ability or knowledge, like a strong aptitude for memorization and recall. "Although a defining feature of autism is having a circumscribed area of interest, not every individual with autism has a splinter skill,” Moore says. "The best way to counter this stereotype is to remember that autism presents in a variety of ways and never looks exactly the same in two people.” And if someone does have a splinter skill, that’s one cool aspect of who they are as a person — not a trick they should be expected to perform on command or the only thing about them that you should focus on.

5. Myth: People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can’t have successful romantic relationships.

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Reality: Some people assume that those with ASD can’t have successful long-term romantic relationships or get married, but Garrison says he’s worked with several happily married men on the spectrum. "There are challenges that can come with being married to someone with ASD, just as there are challenges in any relationship,” he says. "However, I have seen very loving and close married relationships where one person is on the spectrum and the other is not.” It is wrong to assume teens or adults on the spectrum doesn’t want to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, or that they aren’t capable of being a good partner.

6. Myth: Vaccines cause autism.

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Reality: This false belief has been widely discredited. Numerous studies have established that there is no link between vaccination and autism spectrum disorder. And specifically, research shows there is no link between the preservative thimerosal and autism, or the MMR vaccines and autism. Research done by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that purported to show a link between vaccination and autism was found to be intentionally fraudulent and retracted several years ago.

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