Most people with autism want to advocate for themselves, without interference from non-autistic people. With this blog we intend to encourage neurotypical (i.e. non-autistic) people to become more informed and to show more consideration for people with autism. While our intent is to show respect toward all kinds of people, whether autistic or neurotypical, please keep in mind that librarians are not experts and this blog is in no way intended to replace the advice of a doctor or as a substitute for a firsthand account of the lived experiences of people with autism.
(Please note: Some autistic people like using the term 'autistic person' to describe themselves. Others like the term 'a person with autism.' In an effort to decrease stigma about either term, I'll alternate between the two throughout this post, following in the footsteps of author/blogger Amy Sequenzia, opens a new window.)
Let's clarify some confused ideas about autism that still linger in our society.
Fiction and Facts about Autism Spectrum Disorder
Fiction: 'Bad parenting' causes a child's autism.
Fact, opens a new window: Between the 1940's and 1960's, doctors were deeply invested in this disreputable theory. Lacking a scientific explanation, doctors scapegoated the one person who spends the most time with a child - their mother. These doctors suggested that when a child showed signs of autism, it was because their mother had traumatized them with her 'cold' or 'unemotional' parenting, thereby forcing the child to retreat into a world of their own. They called the mothers of autistic children 'refrigerator mothers, opens a new window.' This assumption irreparably damaged the lives of countless people with autism and their families and caused decades of confusion and pain. While research since that time has yet to determine definitive cause(s) of autism, for the most part we can safely say that the 'refrigerator mother' concept has been thoroughly debunked, opens a new window.
Unfortunately, parents of autistic children are still affected by this false concept of 'bad parenting.' They sometimes blame themselves, wondering if something they did or didn't do caused their child's autism. Even worse, parents of children with autism are often publicly criticized by strangers who don't know enough to make sense of an autistic person's behavior. These strangers assume that the parent is 'just coddling their spoiled child.' Parents of autistic children experience more than enough pressure - from within and from without - to do their best to meet their child's needs.
Fiction: Vaccines cause autism.
Fact, opens a new window: In 1998, a researcher published an article in the medical journal The Lancet. The article claimed that the measles, mumps & rubella (MMR) vaccine was causing an increase in autism in British children. This article was discredited, opens a new window in 2010, due to procedural errors, financial conflicts of interest, and scientific misconduct, opens a new window. UK's General Medical Council removed the researcher's name from the medical register and the article was retracted, opens a new window by The Lancet. Since 2003, many large-scale studies, opens a new window have explored a possible connection between the MMR vaccine and autism specifically, as well as any connection between methods and contents of vaccinations, and have found no evidence to support a correlation between vaccines and autism.
Fiction: Autism has become an epidemic.
Fact, opens a new window: People have a tendency to use words like 'epidemic' in an exaggerated way. While it is possible - but not proven - that the prevalence of autism has increased, it's misleading to use the term 'epidemic.' A more probable explanation for the increased number of autism diagnoses in recent years is an increase in research, opens a new window, which has provided an improved understanding of ASD. Also, doctors have updated the criteria for diagnosing autism, opens a new window. Doctors now consider a wider range of behavioral and developmental symptoms, opens a new window before they diagnose a patient as autistic.
Fiction: People with autism are the same.
Fact, opens a new window: Autism is a spectrum disorder, opens a new window. The word 'spectrum' indicates a wide range of different but related things - like the range of colors you see when light goes through a prism. Each autistic person has similar symptoms, but they also have their own unique traits and abilities. Let's use language ability as an example. Some people with autism speak with ease. Others are able to speak, though we may find it difficult to understand what they're saying. Some are unable to speak at all. Autistic people who are unable to vocalize their ideas can sometimes communicate in other ways, like typing, drawing pictures, or using apps. There is so much variety among people diagnosed with autism that the saying, "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism," (attributed to Dr. Stephen Shore, opens a new window) has become very nearly a proverb.
Fiction: All autistic people have an extraordinary talent, like that math genius in the Rain Man movie, opens a new window.
Fact, opens a new window: While some people with autism are exceptionally talented - whether in math, art, music, spatial/pattern recognition or memory skills - not all autistic people have this kind of astounding ability. This phenomenon is called 'savant syndrome, opens a new window.' Research suggests that about 1 in 10, opens a new window people with autism have savant syndrome. Individuals with other developmental disorders sometimes have a savant-level talent. And, while it may seem great to be extraordinarily talented, savant syndrome is no guarantee that life will be any easier.
Friendly Interactions with Autistic People: Tips for Non-Autistic People
- When you're around someone with autism, don't ignore them or speak about them as though they're not there. An autistic person can hear and understand what you say. Be considerate.
- People with autism sometimes express themselves in ways that may seem strange or surprising to you. Try not to react in a negative way. Be sympathetic.
- Don't make assumptions about a person's intellectual or physical abilities based on their appearance. Be kind.
- Don’t define a person by their diagnosis. A person should be treated as a person, not as a disorder. Be compassionate.
- Sometimes autistic people need a little extra time to think about what you're saying before they reply. Be patient.
- If a person with autism doesn't respond the way you expect them to, try not to let your feelings get hurt and don't give up. Autistic people can sometimes be blunt in their responses. Be resilient.
- Think about how you like to be treated, and treat autistic people the same way. Remember the "Golden Rule." Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Be empathetic.
If you have concerns that you or a loved one may be on the autism spectrum, please talk to a health care professional who specializes in care for people with autism, or ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist.
Here is a list of materials available from St. Tammany Parish Library, opens a new window that were written or otherwise produced, in whole or in part, by autistic people.
Here is a list of external websites, opens a new window that have more information about life with autism.