5 Common Autism Myths vs. Facts

5 Common Autism Myths vs. Facts

A Conversation With Healthcare Professional Dr. Claire Lazaro

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about autism lately. You might be surprised to learn that autism was first identified as a concept in the early 1900’s – so it’s been around for a while.

But autism wasn’t considered an official diagnosis until 1980, when it was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for the first time. And the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which consolidated all the different representations of autism, was only introduced in 2013.

The National Institutes of Health defines ASD as a “neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave.” People with autism process information differently than people who are neurotypical. While autism can be diagnosed in adulthood, it’s usually associated with kids.

Claire Lazaro - Headshot Photo
Dr. Claire Lazaro

The focus on ASD – and related research and treatments – has evolved rapidly and significantly in the last 40 years. Clearly, there’s still a lot to learn about this often misunderstood disorder. At the same time, there are some persistent misconceptions about autism that have been thoroughly disproven.

To learn more about these misconceptions and the facts behind the science, we talked to Claire Lazaro, MD, MSN, NP-C, of Valley Mountain Regional Center in Stockton, CA.

Valley Mountain Regional Center (VMRC) is a leading agency providing supports and services to individuals with autism and developmental disabilities in California’s Central Valley. As the Clinical Director of VMRC, Dr. Lazaro is a dedicated expert in her field, with a deep understanding of the unique challenges faced by those with autism and developmental disabilities.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Myth #1: Vaccines cause autism

Dr: Lazaro: I’m glad we’re getting this out of the way first. It is natural for parents to have concerns about vaccines and autism; and these ideas have been around for quite a while. But in 2010, The Lancet retracted their original study claiming that vaccines cause autism. And in 2018, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), released a position statement backed up by 40 years of extensive studies which found no evidence to support a link between autism and vaccines.

Although some still believe there is a connection between the MMR vaccine and developmental milestones at 15-18 months, recent research indicates that the MMR vaccine does not increase the risk of autism, nor does it trigger autism in susceptible children, and it is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination (Hviid et al., 2019).

Actually, parents who decide not to vaccinate their child can expose them to the greater harm of contracting and possibly spreading a deadly disease.

Myth #2: People with autism are all alike

Dr. Lazaro: Autism is a condition as unique as the individuals who have it. We always say, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” No two people with autism are alike. That’s why there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to treating autism. It’s called an “autism spectrum disorder” for a reason.

At one end of the spectrum are those who have milder symptoms. Generally, they can communicate and complete daily tasks, but may have issues with social cues or boundaries. At the other end are those with more severe symptoms. They may be non-verbal, display behaviors of acting out or self-injurious behaviors, or be medically fragile. But every person with autism has a unique set of behaviors and impairments.

Different levels of support are needed for every autistic individual, depending on how their autism presents. It’s important to understand that autism is a neurodiverse condition. The main thing I want people to know is that early interventions make a huge difference in how a child with autism develops.

Myth #3: Autism only affects boys

Dr. Lazaro: Autism can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, race, or socioeconomic status. This April, the CDC reported that 1 in 36 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is true that there is a disproportionate number of boys diagnosed with autism compared to girls – boys are 4 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ASD.

With that said, the way boys and girls experience autism is different. According to Dr. Nordahl, girls with autism often experience greater challenges and impairments than boys. A study presented by Dr. Christine Wu Nordahl at the 2018 International Society for Autism shows that girls with autism have a higher risk of anxiety, ADHD, and oppositional defiant disorder compared to boys. Many girls with autism face challenges with activities of daily living, such as brushing their teeth and getting dressed (Furfaro, 2018).

Another research study from Dr. Nordahl studied brain scans of children with autism which showed that the difference in ASD between boys and girls may be attributed to the area of the brain affected. Autism in boys seems to more often affect the part of the brain that regulates emotions and decision-making. That’s why boys more often exhibit acting out behaviors.

In girls, autism more often affects the area of the brain that regulates planning & executing tasks. It’s believed that girls employ a strategy of “masking” or “camouflaging” – in which girls learn to minimize the visibility of their behavioral or cognitive differences, often by mimicking the behaviors of others in their social group. This could be one of the reasons girls are under-diagnosed.

Autism in boys often presents as regression. They get to a certain phase of development, then regress, losing language and other skills they had previously acquired. But in girls, autism is more often detected when they fail to meet developmental milestones. 

Myth #4: Autism is a genetic disease

Dr. Lazaro: There is no single cause for autism. ASD is believed to possibly result from multiple factors like environmental, genetic, and nongenetic factors. No specific cause of autism has been identified as of yet.

At one point in the 1940s and 50s, autism was blamed on mothers with a “cold” parenting style; their children developed autism because the mother didn’t love them enough. I’m glad we’ve moved past those days! It is not the fault of the mothers.

From a genetic standpoint, studies on identical twins show that autism has a strong genetic basis. Research shows that having a sibling with autism increases a child’s risk to develop the disorder. Certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, like Fragile X or Rett syndrome, are also highly correlated with an autism diagnosis. Children born to older parents also seem to have a higher risk for developing autism.

From an environment standpoint, children living close to farming areas or highways seem to have correlation to higher rates of autism. Additionally, there is a lot of research being conducted now on other possible environmental factors, including toxins such as air pollution, exposure to heavy metals, and pesticides. Occupational and environmental exposure of the mother during pregnancy, and the father before conception that could affect the quality of the sperm, are thought to be contributing factors to autism as well. There seem to be some correlations, but it’s too soon to tell. And it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation.

It’s still not clear how the genetic and environmental elements interact to cause a child to develop ASD. There is much more study being done in this area.

Myth #5: A child can grow out of autism

Dr. Lazaro: There is no cure for autism. Autism is a lifelong neuro-developmental condition that cannot be outgrown. However, with appropriate support and treatments, individuals with autism can lead active and fulfilling lives. As Dr. Temple Grandin, a prominent University of Colorado professor and person with autism, said, “Different, not less.” This quote speaks to the idea that individuals with autism may have unique challenges, but they also have unique strengths and abilities that should be celebrated and embraced.

Children who benefit from early intervention while their brains are still developing may show fewer symptoms and behavioral improvements as they get older. Early interventions may include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy to name a few. But the improvements don’t mean the child is growing out of autism; it’s more like they develop coping skills.

Why dispelling common autism myths is important

Debunking the myths and misconceptions about autism is crucial to understanding and supporting all individuals with developmental disabilities. Thanks to experts like Dr. Lazaro, Clinical Director at Valley Mountain Regional Center, we can break down these misconceptions and provide information that is educational and accurate.

At MedicAlert Foundation, we’re proud to partner with VMRC to provide MedicAlert IDs and protection services to individuals in their care with ASD and developmental disabilities. Wandering, or elopement, is a huge risk factor for children with autism. It’s common, potentially very dangerous, and puts extreme stress on families.

Experts say that 50% of autistic kids will wander or bolt from a safe environment like home or school at some point – every parent’s worst nightmare. MedicAlert’s Safe and Found program provides specialized services to help ensure a safe return home for a child who has wandered or bolted. You can learn more about how MedicAlert helps keep children with autism safe –  and provide parents with peace of mind – here.

MedicAlert Foundation extends our appreciation and immense gratitude to Dr. Lazaro for sharing her expertise and lived experience in the autism community.