“Children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have a variety of symptoms, presenting them in different ways and to different degrees. Although ASD is often surrounded by stereotypical misconceptions and myths, each case is unique, requiring a tailor-made programme addressing each child’s particular needs and specific skill deficits,” says ABA specialist, Jenna White, clinical director at The Star Academy.
Jenna debunks the top 7 autism myths
Myth 1: Autism is a mental illness
Truth: Although some children with ASD may struggle with certain comorbid or co-existing disorders such as OCD, anxiety, depression and Tourette’s syndrome, autism itself is not a mental condition.
“These comorbid disorders, together with gastrointestinal issues, seizures, neurological conditions and nutrient deficiencies manifest in behavioural conditions that cause arrested development. In turn, this results in the child missing developmental milestones they haven’t got because they weren’t properly present when they were one, two or three years of age,” says Jenna.
Myth 2: There is no cure
Truth: There are two key interventions that address an autism diagnosis, applied behavioural analysis (ABA) and bio-medical treatment.
Bio-medical treatment includes dietary measures to alleviate symptoms related to allergies by removing certain foods and adding vitamins to the diet.
“Biomedical treatment facilitates effective management of medical conditions such as gastrointestinal problems, which present as behavioural conditions. Containing these issues allows the child to be more present for speech and other therapies, opening the way for the children to catch up on time lost in reaching major milestones,” explains Jenna.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) has become a widely accepted intervention among healthcare professionals and used in many schools and treatment clinics in the US. Additionally, it’s endorsed as an effective treatment for children with autism by many US state and federal agencies, including the United Sates Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health.
Encouraging positive behaviors while discouraging negative behaviors, ABA is used to improve a variety of skills.
Myth 3: Autism is a lifelong disorder
Truth: Autism doesn’t need to be a lifelong disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research shows early intervention treatment from birth to 36 months can greatly improve a child’s development.
With the benefits of time and empirical research, treatment options like ABA and biomedical intervention have transformed the helplessness associated with an autism diagnosis into one where recovery is possible.
“Recovery is a gradual process and it doesn’t look the same for everyone. When we say autism recovered, it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘just like the kid next door’ – it means gradual increases of functionality and ability, paving the way for more opportunities in life. It doesn’t get erased, but many individuals on the spectrum learn to deal successfully with their challenges and lead independent lives,” says Jenna.
Myth 4: People with autism should be put in a special-needs school
Truth: A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, because each child has a unique manifestation of autism. Every person with autism must be treated and assessed on an individual basis.
The best school setting for a child on the spectrum will depend on their specific set of strengths and skill deficits. It’s important for teachers to provide students with customised interventions that are based on each child’s unique needs rather than addressing the generic need associated with an autism diagnosis.
Myth 5: All people with autism have the same skills and difficulties
Truth: While people with ASD have certain overlapping symptoms such as repetitive behaviours, challenges with social interaction and sensory processing, each child on the spectrum has unique interests, deficits and their own particular weaknesses, strengths and abilities.
Myth 6: Children with autism can’t form connections with others
Truth: Children with autism may not always perceive the subtleties of body language or the nuance of tone in a voice, which means they may not detect sadness or sarcasm. However, this doesn’t stop them from enjoying fulfilling relationships with parents, siblings, spouses and children. However, it does mean they can experience challenges in navigating social relationships and understanding social cues.
“When atypical individuals are aware of these parameters, it facilitates understanding of responses from someone with an ASD diagnosis, making it easier to foster mutually fulfilling and enduring relationships,” says Jenna.
Myth 7: Children with autism can’t speak
Truth: Although some children with autism may be non-verbal or may have delayed speech, there are other children whose speech is well developed.
Delayed speech can be addressed with speech therapy or a tactile-kinesthetic approach known as PROMPT (prompt restructuring oral muscular phonetic targets), a holistic, dynamic, multi-sensory therapeutic programme developed for the assessment and treatment of speech production disorders. Children who are non-verbal can be supported by speech augmentation devices that facilitate communication through symbols rather than words.
The different scope in speech abilities is another symptom that reflects the nature of autism as a spectrum disorder, with children showing speech acquisition in varying degrees.
“Understanding individuals with ASD experience a broad range of functioning from variation in speech abilities to living independently or needing support provides insight into the strengths and challenges for children with an ASD diagnosis,” says Jenna. “This allows atypical people to move beyond the myths and preconceptions and to fully meet the needs of children with ASD, equipping each child with the relevant interventions which address their particular strengths and challenges which provide them with the opportunity to realise their full potential.”