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13 Things Experts Wish People Knew About Autism

Autism experts clear the air on what it really means to be on the spectrum

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Autism facts to know

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes a group of disorders with symptoms that affect daily life and are usually seen starting in early childhood. This developmental disorder can affect a person’s behavior,  communication, and ability to form relationships, among other things. Because it’s a spectrum, people with ASD may need different levels of support, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The specific symptoms of autism are just as varied, too. Here are some important things you should know about the disorder.

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People with autism can be affectionate

Those who don’t know anyone with an autism diagnosis may believe that people with autism aren’t affectionate. This misconception tends to stem from the fact that some individuals with autism don’t like to be touched, hugged, or to look others in the eye. According to Melissa Reiner, M.Ed., behavior and autism consultant, and founder of AskMelissaNow.com, “I can meet 50 different individuals, all with a diagnosis of ASD, who all present differently. I have worked with many individuals who have a diagnosis of ASD, who can be very affectionate.” Although the symptoms aren’t the same for everyone on the spectrum, these are the silent signs of autism all parents should know.

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People with autism have varying levels of intelligence

Just as people without autism have different levels of intelligence, people with autism do, too. Reiner points out that individuals on the spectrum can have an IQ ranging from very low to genius level, “just like every human being.”

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People with autism can succeed in school

People on the autism spectrum can achieve different levels of academic success. It’s not uncommon for individuals with autism to excel in the classroom when they “receive clear directives, clearly communicated ideas, and support within a structured environment,” says Linda S. Lucas, PhD, licensed mental health counselor and an assistant professor in the department of human services at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. Beacon College itself has a 70 percent graduation rate and an 83 percent employment placement rate among its students with autism. (These 9 things teachers wish you knew about autism should be required reading.)

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People with autism can have successful careers

It’s a common misconception that people on the spectrum always fall behind their peers developmentally. However, where one particular skill might be behind, others may be extremely advanced in people with autism, and it’s absolutely possible for people to have successful careers using their strongest skills.

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People with autism know what’s going on

When a person with autism seems wrapped up in his or her own world, that might be true to a certain extent. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t paying attention. Reiner explains that she has worked with children on the spectrum who are able to point out who isn’t in a room within seconds of walking into it, even though it seems like the children haven’t acknowledged those in the room. People with autism may not observe the same way others do, but rather, in a way that makes sense for them.

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People with autism do want to be social

People with autism are like anyone else in that they often desire to have meaningful friendships and relationships with others. However, there are often social deficits involved that don’t make it easy for them to do so. According to Lucas, people on the spectrum might experience social awkwardness, difficulty understanding social cues, and communication problems that make it challenging for them to establish the relationships they want to seek out.

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They may struggle with low self-esteem

Low self-esteem can also be a factor in an individual who has challenges when it comes to establishing and maintaining relationships. “Autistic children are often accused of being unempathetic and uncaring, so they are often left out of social situations,” Lucas explains. “They hurt, they feel, and their struggles contribute to a lack of self-esteem—thereby compounding their socializing struggles.” (Here are 7 children’s books that help explain how everyone is different.)

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It’s not the parents’ fault

The parents of children with autism sometimes get blamed for their child’s diagnosis. Lucas chalks this up to a “lack of knowledge about the disorder” and says that “parents cannot control the impact of mutated or faulty genes (what most research believes causes autism) during the developmental process in the womb.” Lucas adds that parents of children with autism commit to a continuous process of learning and making accommodations for their children and they need support. (Here are 12 things you should never say to a parent of an autistic child.)

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Parents can sometimes feel like failures

“You can be the best parent in the world and often feel like a failure while parenting an individual with a diagnosis of autism,” says Reiner. Parenting a child with autism requires a lot of work, education, and a constant commitment to do whatever it takes to help that child thrive in her environment. It’s not an easy job for any parent, even when they have an excellent support system in place. It’s crucial that others are aware of the common struggles parents face every day and are willing to support them. Reiner adds that it’s important for doctors, therapists, caregivers, educators, and the public to remain “committed to educating and encouraging parents as they navigate through challenges intrinsic to parenting all individuals.”

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Certain labels can be harmful

High-functioning and low-functioning are two terms used to describe the degree of ability a person with autism has. However, Reiner explains that these terms can be incredibly damaging to individuals on either end of the spectrum because they don’t give an accurate picture of what everyone’s strengths and deficits are. Instead, it’s important to treat each autistic person as an individual with specific needs rather than focus on their labels.

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People with autism are not limited in all abilities

Many people with autism do struggle with skills and self-control, including communication, social bonding, and impulsivity. However, these struggles don’t equate to having limited abilities; instead, individuals with autism require different paths toward learning, socializing, and completing everyday activities to excel in their own ways. “While we may have to approach different ways of empowering and inspiring individuals with autism, [they], like all individuals, are capable and competent contributors to this world,” says Reiner.

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Many therapies seem promising

There are various therapies currently in place to help people with autism meet their needs and goals. Occupational therapy, speech therapy, and various behavioral therapies are common for those on the spectrum to learn how to communicate, socialize, and modify behaviors. Experts consistently work to develop new therapies to help individuals with autism from diagnosis into adulthood. Reiner mentions one particular therapy known as relationship developmental intervention (RDI), which “encourages an individual to cultivate skills and levels of competence from an internal desire to connect with others in a meaningful way” through guided participation in their most comfortable environments, like home and school.

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New medications might improve social bonds

There are no medications that can treat autism itself, but some medications can treat symptoms associated with autism. Researchers continuously seek new therapies and medications that might help individuals with autism. Balovaptan, a drug that was granted “breakthrough therapy” status by the Food and Drug Administration in 2018, is not yet approved but is an example of a drug with potential benefits that researchers are working on. The drug may help children with autism bond socially with others by targeting the appropriate receptors in the brain that help people communicate, but again, more research is needed especially since it hasn’t been compared to placebo yet. Here are more autism myths people need to stop believing.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Renata Chalfin, MD, on March 17, 2020