World Autism Awareness Day 2015: Don't believe the myths

There is still a long way to go before autism is fully understood and people with the condition are able to participate fully in their community

As a nation we think we understand autism. Since the first discovery of the condition just over 70 years ago awareness of autism has continued to grow. Despite this, 87 per cent of people affected by autism think the general public has a bad understanding of the condition.

Many of the common myths surrounding autism have been debunked - including the perception that people with autism can’t hold a job. But only 15 per cent of adults in the UK with autism are in full-time employment, while 61 per cent of people with autism currently not in employment say they want to work.

Research suggests that employers are missing out on abilities that people on the autism spectrum have in greater abundance – such as heightened abilities in pattern recognition and logical reasoning, as well as a greater attention to detail.

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society (NAS) said: "It's remarkable that awareness has increased so much since the NAS was set up over 50 years ago, a time when people with the condition were often written off and hidden from society.

But, as our supporters frequently tell us and the poll confirms, there is still a long way to go before autism is fully understood and people with the condition are able to participate fully in their community. All too often we still hear stories of families experiencing judgemental attitudes or individuals facing isolation or unemployment due to misunderstandings or myths around autism.”

There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK – more than 1 in a 100. So as it's more common than perhaps expected, what other myths still exist?

1) Autism only affects men

Men outweigh women when it comes to being diagnosed with autism 4 to 1.

It has been suggested in the past that autism is, in fact, an exaggerated version of the male brain. New thinking, however, suggests that due to either nature, nurture, or a mixture of the two, the signs of autism in women often go unnoticed.

Little girls are expected to be more expressive with their emotions, to play socially, and to form more friendships than their male counterparts. According to the NAS, girls with autism also have generally similar interests to their peers such as horses, and classical literature, and can also follow soap operas or celebrities very closely. Because these traits are seen as part of being a teenage girl, many women go undiagnosed.

2) Autistic people struggle to have relationships and prefer their own company

Every day social skills that many of us take for granted can be a struggle for somebody with autism and often this difficulty can be mistaken for disinterest in forming friendships or relationships. A lack of social skills does not always mean a lack of interesting socialising, and friendships are often just as important for somebody with autism. According to a survey of people affected by autism in 2012 by the NAS, 65% said they would like to have more friends.

Autism is unique for everyone and many people, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, manage relationships, marriages and families. Although for some this can be much harder than others.

3) Autism is only found in children

Although much emphasis is placed on diagnosing autism as early as possible in children, it is impossible to “cure” autism, or to grow out of it. While in some cases people see symptoms alleviate over time when caught early enough, this isn’t usually the case. Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism.

As our understanding of autism continues to grow, and more and more children are diagnosed, more adults than ever before are seeking out diagnoses later in life.

An autism diagnosis for an adult can come as a huge relief, as people can understand why they have found certain things difficult before, and why they have been especially good at certain things.

4) People with autism have “savant skills”

The incredible abilities of some people with autism are often talked about with a sense of wonder and awe. Stories such as that of Stephen Wiltshire, known as the human camera, who can draw an accurate and detailed panorama of a city after seeing it just once, inspire us.

Daniel Tammet, from Barking, can recite Pi to 22,514 decimal places and can “sense” when a number is prime. He also speaks 11 languages.

But while there are autistic people with incomprehensibly impressive, special skills, not everyone with autism is like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

There is a higher level of people with so named “savant” abilities within the autistic community, but current thinking is that that at most 1 or 2 in 200 individuals with autism may have an extraordinary talent.

5) Autism is a mental health condition or an intellectual disability

According to new NAS figures, 28% of people believe that autism is a mental health condition, along with depression or schizophrenia. In fact, autism is a lifelong developmental condition.

Although some people with autism have accompanying disabilities or learning difficulties (some have shown at 71 per cent of children diagnosed with autism also have a mental illness) autism itself has no bearing on an individual’s intellectual capability, or their emotional wellbeing. 

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