5 Persistent Autism Myths—Debunked
Welcome to this month’s Worst of Autism Myths. Let’s bust 5 of the most persistent and harmful misconceptions about Autistic empathy, nonspeaking people, vaccines, gender, and our alleged lack of humour – hopefully for good this time! (We can always dream…)
Please beware that external links might use medical language and contain other disturbing content.
Myth 1: Autistics lack empathy
Ask Autistics which myths they find most harmful and the empathy one usually takes the cake. It comes as no surprise, given how dehumanising it is.
The truth is, many Autistics experience empathy more strongly, but often also differently compared to non-Autistics. Some of us might find it hard to identify our feelings at times. They often come to us with some delay. Or we fluctuate between feeling too little and too much. We also tend to express our emotions differently.
Not to mention that there are different types of empathy—cognitive, emotional, compassionate, somatic.
Dr Damian Milton proposes a ‘double empathy problem’—a two-way street where Autistics and non-Autistics find it hard to interpret each other’s emotions and their respective expressions.
One thing is certain: We DO experience empathy. And whoever came up with the idea that we don’t clearly lacked any empathy themselves!
An illustration of what empathy feels like by Super-Spectrum-Girl
Milton’s ‘double empathy problem’: A summary for non-academics by Dr Melanie Heyworth
Help me to Understand Autistic Empathy by Jessica Harrison
A Three-Part Exploration of Empathy by Autistically Alex
Autistic Empathy is Different by Emma on NeuroClastic
Myth 2: Nonspeakers don't communicate
An extremely harmful misconception that can destroy lives by denying nonspeaking people agency and access to communication. It means silencing someone’s voice just because they aren’t using spoken words.
Many nonspeaking Autistics are denied access to AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) such as signing, communication boards, tablets, laptops, speech-generating devices, etc. There’s also a common misconception of being either speaking or nonspeaking, when in reality, it varies from person to person and over time.
And even those who don’t use any of the aforementioned methods do still communicate.
Gestures, facial expressions, posture, sounds, art, interacting with objects, and movement are all forms of communication. Neurotypical people claim to value nonverbal communication, so it’s time for some ‘whole body’ listening on their side!
LISTEN – A short film by Communication First
In My Language by Mel Baggs, an Autistic advocate who passed away in 2020
Blog by Cal Montgomery, Board Chairperson of ASAN and activist who survived long-term institutionalisation
Book: Leaders Around Me: Autobiographies of Autistics who Type, Point, and Spell to Communicate – A compilation of 45 autobiographies of extraordinary individuals who use keyboards, letter boards, and communication devices.
Myth 3: Vaccines cause Autism
This should REALLY go without saying, but vaccines don’t cause Autism. This lie has led to a sharp decline in vaccination rates and a consequent increase in measles and mumps outbreaks. It has also fuelled the rise of the anti-vax movement. Not to mention that it’s simply insulting to dismiss our way of being as vaccine damage, paving the way for a plethora of harmful ‘treatments’.
It all goes back to the late 90s when a study by British former physician Andrew Wakefield claimed a connection between the combined MMR vaccine and Autism. The fraudulent paper has since been retracted and Wakefield was removed from the UK medical register.
In a nutshell, the main issues are:
Conflict of Interest: Wakefield had been hired by a compensation lawyer and received funding from the Legal Aid Board to investigate a link between the MMR and Autism on behalf of parents involved in litigation against MMR vaccine manufacturers.
Selection bias: There were no control groups. Only 12 preselected children were involved in the study, several of which were recruited by anti-MMR campaign groups. Some of them were the children of parents involved in the aforementioned litigations. Several children showed developmental differences before they were even vaccinated.
Falsification of data: It was found that details about the children’s medical histories and timelines had been manipulated to support the conclusion.
It was also reported that Wakefield had been planning to market his own replacement vaccine. Not to speak of the unethical tests that were inflicted on those children. Meanwhile Wakefield has denied allegations and has recently started spreading false information about the COVID vaccines.
The CDC, the NHS, and a host of other organisations reviewed the evidence and couldn’t find a link between the vaccine and Autism. No other research team was ever able to replicate the results. It’s hard to think of another medical myth that has been debunked so thoroughly, through so many independent investigations, and yet it still distorts the public’s view on Autism to this day.
A series of articles including the 7-year investigation by Brian Deer:
Academic resources (free access):
Myth 4: We're all boys
Maybe you have heard of Baron-Cohen’s previous ‘extreme male brain’ theory of Autism, which was based on all kinds of problematic assumptions and not exactly popular within the Autistic community, to say the very least. Maybe you have even heard the term ‘female Autism’ pop up here and there.
People are slowly becoming more aware of the fact that girls and women can be Autistic, but often fly under the radar for various reasons: They’re socialised differently, mask/camouflage their Autistic traits more, have more ‘typical’ interests, or simply differ from the male stereotype as seen in (early) research and in the media.
Estimates of the female-to-male ratio have been continuously corrected up from “there are no Autistic girls” to 1:8 and currently 1:3. Whatever the exact number may be, if you have spent any time in Autistic spaces at all, you will know that the relationship between Autism and gender is more complex than that. Gender identity isn’t binary.
Which is why gendering Autism as female or male isn’t helpful. And if cis-girls and women are overlooked and dismissed, then this applies even more so to gender diverse people (and ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups, while we’re at it!).
According to a 2020 study, trans-, nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, bigender, and gender-nonconforming people are 3 to 6 times more likely to be Autistic. Why this is the case isn’t clear. One reason might be that Autistic people are less obsessed with meeting society’s gender expectations. (Call it ‘social deficits’ one more time, I dare you!)
What’s more important than researching the reasons: There’s a medical bias against cis-women and gender minorities who are often not taken seriously or misdiagnosed with anxiety, depression or personality disorders. The latter and Autism aren’t mutually exclusive, but by denying us access to Autism assessment, supports, and services, we are also being denied accommodations, community, and identity.
Neurotypicals often accuse us of black-and-white thinking, so it’s time they addressed their own binary thinking. There’s no neurodiversity without gender diversity.
Myth 5: We don't have a sense of humour
While not all of us find it easy to pick up on jokes, a lot of us are actually masters of irony/sarcasm and self-deprecating humour ourselves. How does that work? Maybe our delivery is just too dry for neurotypicals sometimes!
Often we discover that we are funny by accident: Our sense of humour is based on saying out loud what we think and rolling with the laughs. Humour is a great way of making sense of oneself and the world. It can also be a good way to connect with others. To show that Autism doesn’t have to be a tragedy. And to hold a mirror up to society.
Autistic people meet two prerequisites to being funny: We say it as it is, and we observe and analyse the peculiarities of human interactions from a distance. Taking things literally can be helpful too, since it’s part of how wordplays like puns work. Not convinced? Here are some examples of Autistic humour.
Please note that a lot of the links below involve sensitive topics and might be offensive or upsetting to some people. Content Warnings have been added in brackets.
Irish comedian Ian Lynam (CW: Loud noise in the beginning, a joke about ‘non-verbal’ people)
Irish Spoken word Poet Jacob Wordsmith on Dating Apps (CW: Adult content)
Aoife Dooley: Your One Nikita (CW: Adult content)
Joe Well talking about his non-Autistic brother (CW: Joke about DNRs)
No list on Autistic humour would be complete without Hannah Gadsby: Excerpt from her latest show Douglas (CW: Functioning labels). Nanette is also on Netflix (CW: Trauma, homophobic violence, sexual assault)
Everything’s Gonna be Okay – both the lead Kayla Cromer and co-star/creator Josh Thomas are Autistic (CW: Funeral)
Michael McCreary: Older TED Talk: Does this make my Asperger’s look big? (CW: Asperger’s)
Fern Brady, a Scottish comedian who was only diagnosed in 2021, discussing her morning routine (No CW for this one, but in general Brady needs a ‘content warning’ stuck to her forehead 😉 )
As an Autistic ADHDer, Jo likes to come up with a million ideas but sometimes struggles to keep track of the two dozen tabs that are open in her mind at all times. She co-founded Neuro Pride as a space for Neurodivergent adults to come together and thrive – to celebrate ND culture and community.