he fact that myths related to the obsolete view of autism as a mental illness persist reveals how well disseminated that view was. The persistence of all of these myths indicates the need for education of the general public about this disorder. Only equally good dissemination of the biological reality of autism will at last dispel that stigmatizing notion.
The following are common myths about autism:
Myth: Bad parenting causes autism.
This formerly widely held view has been thoroughly debunked in the scientific community. It is now known that autism is a neurological and developmental disorder, not one caused by psychological factors. "Poor mother/child bonding, if it is to be associated with Autism at all, must be seen as effect rather than a cause of Autism," states Uta Frith, author of Autism: Explaining the Enigma.
Myth: Children with autism choose to live in their own world.
Choice has nothing to do with it. Autistic behaviors arise from the different "wiring" inherent to the disorder. Hypersensitivity to sound, light, touch, and environmental factors as a result of neurological problems are additional features that often make such interaction stressful and even painful.
Myth: Children with autism avoid eye contact.
This is not necessarily the case. Many do make eye contact, although it may be done in a different manner than children who are not autistic. Uta Frith explains that they are not avoiding the gaze, as is typically believed, but rather lack understanding of and the ability to use the "language of the eyes," a vital component of social communication. The problems of gaze and other attributes of autism are often improved or disappear with natural medicine therapies that resolve the biological issues involved in an individual case.
Myth: People with autism are actually geniuses
...or savants like Dustin Hoffman's character in the film Rain Man.
Only one in ten people with autism have what are termed "islets of ability or intelligence," such as unusual artistic or musical talent or extraordinary calculation or memory skills. Like other children, the IQs of children with autism range throughout the scale, with only a small percentage falling in the lower and upper ranges. Dysfunction in certain areas of mental processing is common to autistic children.
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Myth: Children with autism don't speak.
On the contrary, many develop "good functional language," while most others learn to communicate through sign language, pictures, computers, or electronic devices. As with other features of autism, the more the biological factors can be ameliorated, the greater the possibility that the child will attain normal language skills.
Myth: Children with autism could talk if they wanted to.
One of the areas greatly affected by the neurological problems and developmental delays of autism is speech. Autistic muteness and lack of verbal response to questions is not a matter of stubbornness or noncompliance, but the result of developmental impairment of speech.
Myth: Children with autism can't show affection.
The Autism Society of America calls this "one of the most devastating myths for families." As with eye contact, the differences in their "wiring" may make autistic children express their love and affection differently from other children. This does not mean they can't give and receive love. Family members need to be willing to meet the child on her terms and recognize her capacity to connect.
Myth: Children with autism lack feelings and emotions.
Clearly, this is not the case, as evidenced by temper tantrums and happy laughter. As with the myth above, it is the communication of emotions, not their existence, that is the issue. All aspects of communication are problematic for autistic children due to their neurological dysfunction and developmental delays, and emotional communication is no exception.
Myth: Children with autism are just spoiled kids with behavior problems.
This myth brings the curse of autism back to the parents' door. It reflects the tenaciousness of the psychological model. It also shows a lack of understanding of the profound and far-reaching effects of neurological impairment on behavior, mood, and motor and language development, among other areas.
Myth: Autism is forever.
If the condition improves significantly, it means the child was misdiagnosed and does not have autism.
This is a myth that persists in the conventional medical and psychiatric world, with its dismal prognosis for autism. Given the lack of means to reverse or ameliorate the biological factors involved in autism, the prognosis is understandable and the myth goes unchallenged.
As this book demonstrates, improvement and even reversal are possible when you can address the underlying factors in treatment. Many children who strictly met the criteria for a diagnosis of autism experienced significant improvement with natural medicine approaches. On the more conservative end of treatment, methods such as behavior modification, speech therapy, and occupational therapy are known to produce improvement in autistic children.
Labels Are Stuck in Conventional Wisdom
In the early days of psychiatric diagnosis, autistic people were often labeled schizophrenic. Whatever the label, they were considered ineducable, and institutionalization was a common fate. While the views regarding educability have changed, conventional wisdom still holds that autism is not a treatable disorder — that the best you can do is train autistic children out of some of their limitations.
A Newsweek cover story on autism in July 2000 reflected this view, focusing on a form of behavior modification as the treatment of choice and stating that "most [autistic children] end up in institutions by the age of 13."
As those involved in natural medicine approaches to autism know and as you will learn in this book, treatment holds the possibility for much more than simply working with the limitations.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
"[T]here are still many parents, and, yes, professionals, too, who believe that 'once autistic, always autistic.' This dictum has meant sad and sorry lives for many children diagnosed, as I was in early life, as autistic. To these people it is incomprehensible that the characteristics of autism can be modified and controlled. ... I am living proof that they can.” —Temple Grandin, PhD, coauthor of Emergence: Labeled Autistic
©2012 by Stephanie Marohn. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Co.
Dist. by Red Wheel Weiser. www.redwheelweiser.com
The Natural Medicine Guide to Autism
by Stephanie Marohn.
About the Author
Stephanie Marohn is a medical journalist and non-fiction writer and the author of the Healthy Mind series for Hampton Roads. In 1997, a miniature horse named Pegasus started her on the path to creating the Animal Messenger Sanctuary, a safe haven for farm animals in Sonoma County, CA. Visit her website at www.stephaniemarohn.com (Photo: Dorothy Walters)