Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Guest post by my daughter Allison Prinsen: Ten Myths About Autism

April is Autism Acceptance Month, and last April on this blog I featured a guest post by my daughter Allison about how to be an autism ally.

Today I'm pleased to have another post from Allison; this time she's exploring ten common myths about autism.


Ten Myths About Autism

Hello everyone. This Autism Acceptance Month, I am going to discuss some of the myths surrounding autism and autistic people. My aim is to increase people’s understanding of the diversity of the autism spectrum and the various ways in which autism can present.

1. Autistic people lack empathy
This myth seems to stem out of confusion about what constitutes “empathy”. Because of difficulty reading body language, autistic people may have trouble knowing how someone is feeling unless we are told outright. Our social impairments may also result in trouble knowing how to comfort someone who is upset. But we are capable of caring about others and showing compassion. Some autistic people may not be emotionally affected by others’ feelings, but they can still show kindness and support to them. Also, some autistic people are hyper-empathetic, meaning that they feel others’ pain so intensely that it overwhelms them. It is inaccurate and hurtful to assume that autistic people do not care about others. 

2. All autistic people are savants or geniuses
When an autistic person is portrayed in fiction, it is often a savant—a person who has a genius talent in a certain area, such as math, music, art, or memory. Some autistic people are savants, but they represent only a minority of autistics. Our skills and intellectual abilities vary widely: some are brilliant at a particular subject, some are good at certain things but not to genius level, and some may feel like they don’t have any real talents at all. Additionally, there are autistics who struggle with subjects that we are stereotyped as being good at, like math and spelling. Though many autistic people may be strong in specific areas, we are not all geniuses. 

3. Autistic people prefer facts to imagination
Similarly to the above, autistic people in the media tend to be obsessed with facts, often revolving around specific scientific subjects. There’s also a stereotype that autistic people aren’t imaginative or don’t like fiction. But we can actually be very creative, sometimes more so than most people. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed being “in my own world” and coming up with imaginary characters and scenarios in my head. I just preferred to engage in this on my own, and was shy about sharing my daydreams with others. Many autistic people’s special interests—the topics they are extremely passionate about—involve something creative, like a specific TV show or book series. We don’t all fit the archetype of the hyper-logical science expert.

4. Autistic people aren’t interested in relationships with others. 
Again, this depends on the person, but many autistics do crave close friendships with others. We just have trouble connecting with others, and may be overwhelmed by too much socialization. Often, we find it easier to make friends online, where we don’t feel as much pressure to respond immediately and don’t have to worry about eye contact or facial expressions. Some autistics are even extroverted and love socializing, but have trouble following social rules and may be awkward or overbearing. The same goes for romantic relationships: autistics can date, get married, and have kids, though it may be more difficult for us. And if an autistic person doesn’t want to date, that’s not necessarily because of autism; some people, whether autistic or not, just aren’t interested in romantic relationships. But in general, autistic people have the same need for love and companionship, whether platonic or romantic, as anyone else.

5. Autistic people are unaware of social norms. 
As autistic people grow older, we generally gain a better understanding of social rules, and improve at skills like making conversation, interpreting body language or non-literal statements, and knowing what is and isn’t appropriate to say. Of course, we still make mistakes, but those mistakes help us learn. Also, even though we may understand what the social norms are, we may have trouble following them in certain situations. If overwhelmed, we may behave in ways that seem odd, such as covering our ears or rocking back and forth. Even if we realize our behaviours are unusual, we may be unable to control them when stressed. Or we may behave in unusual ways just because we enjoy it and don’t care what others think of us. This can apply to stimming, a term for the repetitive motions that autistics often exhibit. Stimming is generally pleasurable for us and hurts no one, so we may not care if it seems strange to others. But it’s not true that autistics are always unaware of what is socially normal and what isn’t.

6. You can always tell if someone is autistic. 
Some autistic people have a good enough understanding of social norms to pass as neurotypical, at least in some situations. (A neurotypical is someone without any mental disorders.) Sometimes we suppress our autistic behaviours to fit in or avoid bullying, or we learn to mimic others to appear “normal”. In fact, some autistic people aren’t diagnosed until adulthood, or not at all. This is often said to be especially true of women. Autism can present in a variety of ways, and not all of them are obvious.

7. Autistic people take everything literally and don’t understand sarcasm or humour. 
It’s true that autistic people do sometimes take things literally, because of difficulty with understanding tones of voice and the intent behind words. But we can learn the meanings of idioms and slang terms, and many of us do understand and use sarcasm. Many of us are extremely funny in a quirky way. And autistic people aren’t the only ones who take things literally. Sometimes, an autistic person will make a joke and have it taken literally by others because we don’t deliver it in the “right” tone or they don’t see us as the kind of person who would make jokes. Though our senses of humour may be different from the usual, we do have them. 

8. Autistic people are unemotional. 
It’s more accurate to say that autistic people generally express emotion differently from others. Some autistic people may have a flat affect and not express a lot of emotion outwardly, though that doesn’t mean they’re not feeling anything on the inside. Others are very emotional: they have meltdowns when upset and dance with joy when excited. Autistic people may also be emotionally affected by different things than most people: we may get very upset at something that doesn’t bother others, or not react to something that does upset others. A lot of autistics also have alexithymia, which means they have trouble labeling and expressing their feelings. But in general, autistic people can feel all the same emotions as others, though we may show them differently.

9. You should always say “person with autism” instead of “autistic person”. 
The “person-first” movement states that people should avoid using the term “autistic”, and instead use “person with autism”, to imply that the person is more than their diagnosis. However, much of the autistic community rejects this insistence on person-first language. Many of us do see autism as part of our identity, and do not want to be separated from it. Saying “autistic person” doesn’t imply that autism is all the person is; we would describe people as “female” rather than as a “person with femaleness”, even though being female is not their whole identity. Though different autistic people will have different preferences, there is no need to avoid the word “autistic”. 

10. Autism is a linear spectrum from high-functioning to low-functioning. 
Some people view the autism spectrum as a sliding scale. On one end, there are the people who are fully verbal, highly intelligent, and capable of living independently, and on the other end there are people who are non-verbal, intellectually disabled, and need constant care. But it isn’t as simple as that. Some people may be non-verbal but have high intelligence, or intellectually disabled but very verbal and social. These functioning labels can be used to discredit the capabilities of autistic people who need more day-to-day support, and to undermine the struggles of those who can blend well into society. It’s preferable to think of the spectrum as having many different components, such as verbal ability, intellectual ability, social skills, emotional management, sensory sensitivity, and so on. A person can be at a different level in all of them, and their ability can vary depending on their mood and the situation. We don’t all fit into the neat categories of “high-functioning” and “low-functioning”.

You may have noticed that most of these myths have something in common: they assume that all autistic people are a certain way. Generalizing about all autistics will usually be inaccurate, because we are all different. We can be loud or quiet, artistic or scientific, nice or mean. Basically, we are people like anyone else, who can feel pain, anger, passion, and love. We deserve to be respected as unique and complete humans, not just as a collection of stereotypical traits. 



  1. Thank you so much for this, Allison. Your illuminating reflections will surely help many people better understand the diversity and complexity of the autistic experience. As a t-shirt worn by an autistic friend of mine put it: "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." Thank you again for your thoughtful essay, such an important reminder to see and respect each person's individuality.

  2. Thank-you for this amazing post Allison! Having two Autistic children myself, knowing their differences, I still learned from your post. I completely 100% agree with all of your 10 points and I am so grateful that you shared these points!! I was SO hoping you would write another post, as last years post was just as informative! Many blessings.

  3. Wow, Allison! Well done. What an excellent article you've written here. It seems to me you could pursue publication. <3 I appreciated your insights, especially #6 and #9. Thank you.

  4. A great article Allison Very very enlightening. Well written. I learned a lot by reading your article Thank you. Gretha Langendoen

  5. This is an extremely thorough and helpful post disabusing myths, Allison. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Well done! Very helpful and informative! Thank you for sharing your insights!


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