Why is autism still so confusing?
Since 1999, the puzzle piece ribbon has represented the Autism Society, a symbol of the neurological disorder’s complexity. “Autism may be confusing to both ordinary people and professionals because some of its behavioral characteristics remind those of other, more common and better-described conditions, such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder,” explains Oksana Hagerty, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Beacon College in Leesburg, FL.
Newer brain research has moved from how we process concrete concepts like math and language to how the brain manages with more abstract concepts that play a role in autism—such as social and emotional intelligence. As neurologists gain a better understanding of the brain, they’re able to debunk more and more myths about autism. In honor of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, these are the outdated beliefs doctors wish we all would stop believing.
Myth: Individuals with autism are emotionless
Some people assume that autism leaves a person incapable of experiencing true emotions—think of Spock on Star Trek. But autism is a spectrum disorder, and people may express a range of emotions from excitement to anger, whereas others are more restricted in their expression. But individuals with autism can undoubtedly recognize, and feel, emotions from others, regardless of how they express it. According to an article in Pediatric Health, Medicine, and Therapeutics, most children with autism are able to recognize emotions comparable to their same-age peers by matching them. They can often label simpler feelings, like happiness and sadness, though they can struggle to identify emotions like surprise and fear, explains Tamara Bugembe, MD, a consultant pediatrician. Check out what teachers expect your kids to know, by grade level.
Myth: They prefer to stay isolated
It’s no secret that social impairments affect individuals on the autism spectrum. Studies have proven, and diagnostic criteria confirm, that social development delays are significant factors in ASD diagnoses. Those on the spectrum may find it difficult to develop relationships with their peers due to a combination of a delayed ability for spontaneous sharing, communication delays, and impaired ability to recognize subtleties in facial expressions, body posture, and eye contact. However, this has no bearing on an individual’s desire to progress in social relationships and settings. Instead, an individual with autism often feels so uncomfortably out of place in social situations that he would rather avoid them until he learns the proper tools to progress. According to the Foundation for Autism Support and Training, some may “find it threatening to be in crowds or groups of people because they may have difficulty reading another person’s facial expressions, and as a result, may misinterpret another person’s intentions.” But this doesn’t reflect one’s desire for support, understanding, and friendship. “Many teenagers I see in my clinic seemed happy in their own company when they were younger but craved friendships and relationships as they get older. They tell me that they want to make friends but do not know how to go about making them or maintaining them,” says Dr. Bugembe. This adorable pig brings joy to special needs kids who just want a friend.