Myths and truths of autism

Certain views on autism that come from popular culture and others, originated in erroneous scientific postulates, have not only confused the parents of children with this diagnosis, but have also prevented the establishment of adequate support from an early age.

From my point of view, it is vitally important that parents always go to up-to-date and “sensitized” specialists on the subject, so that their children can receive the support they need. But in addition to this, the support, the light, the helping hand, which can be obtained in the networks that form the group of parents of children with the same condition, is invaluable.

In 1943, it was Leo Kanner, who gave name to a set of symptoms that today bear the name of Autism Spectrum Disorder (according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-DSM 5), in which the various degrees and manifestations of ASD, taking an important step towards understanding and addressing it. According to other specialists on the subject, “autism is a disorder characterized by three basic deficits: verbal, communicative and affective; it is accompanied by obsessive behaviors and persists throughout life”.

However, even when there are deficits in these three areas, it does not mean that they are registered in a uniform way in all and that the child cannot register important progress, through appropriate treatments, which include both interventions from Psychology, Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy and other disciplines, as well as by pharmacological therapy in some cases, to treat anxiety or depression. That is why it is very important that parents are aware of the false beliefs that exist around ASD, as well as its counterpart, so that they can help their children appropriately.

Do people with ASD not communicate?

Although a significant percentage of people with ASD do not develop vocal language, at least in general, this does not mean that they cannot communicate. The communicative act is not restricted to speech; its function is also fulfilled through expressions that convey feelings, needs and whose development allows a more fruitful interaction of the child with his parents and his family or educational environment in general.

That parents are open and attentive to those other forms of communication such as gestures, signals and words that probably do not form complete sentences in some cases of ASD but that fulfill the communicative function, can make an important difference in the development of the child. As the psychologist Mario Colombo points out, far from finding an absence of communication, one is in the presence of other forms of it, since sign language, a tantrum, holding an adult’s hand, pointing out things, constitute communicative acts . The task of parents or caregivers will be to further develop that “sixth sense” that allows them to understand the world of their child.

Do vaccines cause autism?

Thanks to a publication in the Lancet medical journal in 1998, of a study carried out on a sample of 12 children, 8 would have obtained a diagnosis of ASD, after receiving the triple viral vaccine. Thimerosal was the element that was supposedly associated with several adverse effects, including causing autism, but there is no evidence on the neurotoxicity of its compound ethylmercury.

Faced with the worrying findings, published in the prestigious journal, many studies followed that did not find this relationship between vaccines and ASD. Subsequently, it was discovered that the lead author of the publication, Andrew Wakefield, deliberately altered the results, in the interest of patenting his own vaccine, and even his study co-authors retracted. This resulted in a ban on Wakefield from practicing professionally in the UK, but the damage from the spread was done and to this day many people are wary of vaccines and choose not to immunize their children.

Are they incapable of feeling or expressing affection and prefer isolation?

Like any human being, children and adults with ASD experience feelings such as anger, fear, love, and bond with their loved ones, although the way these emotions are communicated may be unusual.

On the other hand, the current conceptualization that is collected in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-DSM 5, is that the symptoms can vary according to each individual, manifesting from the mildest to the most severe. Therefore, we cannot make generalizations, everything will vary according to each person and the degree they present; and the environment where the child develops.

I can safely tell you that a life rich in relationships and affection, provided by parents and the whole family, will also significantly and positively influence behavior.

Do they have an intellectual disability or on the contrary, a superior intelligence?

In this regard, the myths move to extremes. Either it is considered from the outset that children diagnosed with ASD have or will have an intellectual disability, an erroneous belief that is supported in part by the difficulties with language that some experience, depending on the degree of autism or that, on the contrary, they will develop superior intelligence in specific areas such as mathematics, for example.

As stated in DSM 5, having this disorder in a broad spectrum, a percentage of people with ASD have an associated intellectual disability, but others may not only carry out secondary but even higher studies and develop independence for their adult life. In any case, only the diagnosis and adequate professional support will be able to evaluate each individual so that he or she develops skills, supported by her family environment.

Regarding the development of special abilities, a myth widely spread by the film industry, in films like Rain Man, in which the protagonist had superior intelligence in mathematics, but deficiencies in all other areas, is not a condition that is repeat for all people with ASD. This phenomenon, known as Savant Syndrome, can occur in one in 10 individuals with autism.

What is this about? There are various hypotheses. Some researchers suggest that as the brain is freed from some functions, it can better focus on others; Others indicate that people with SAD of special talents can create their own rules and adhere to them, and thus can identify patterns around them, which can allow them to extract the essential characteristics of their visual world, memorize them and from there, accomplish feats of calculation.

In short, what current advances in the study of Autism Spectrum Disorder show us is that each case must be evaluated separately, since there are differentiated diagnosis and treatment tools, which are what can allow each child with ASD to achieve develop their full potential in the present and for their future.

Do you have any other questions? Write to me, I will be willing to help you in what is within my power. I know that receiving a diagnosis at the beginning creates a lot of uncertainty and fear, so you have to seek support from the right specialists.

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