The Truth About Autism

“Doesn’t he have any social skills?” “Isn’t he smart enough?” “What a nerd.” “Why can’t he be like normal kids?” Some adults have been heard to say these things when they see a child who (unbeknownst to the adult) has a developmental disorder, but those adults don’t realize it’s a problem that the child cannot control. Imagine being in a foreign country where you don't understand the language or the customs and where your failure to act as the residents do is interpreted as stubbornness or stupidity. That scenario, according to parents and researchers, characterizes the world of an autistic person.

Some basic information from the Autism Society of America:
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically occurs during the first three years of life. It’s the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. It’s estimated to occur as frequently as one in every 500 individuals, it’s four times more prevalent in boys than girls, and knows no social, ethnic or racial boundaries. It affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills, and makes it hard for the individual who has it to communicate with others. Autism was first described around 1943 by psychiatrist Leo Kanner.

It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that the symptoms and characteristics exist in a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. It is defined by a certain set of behaviors, but those who have it can show any combination of the behaviors in varying degrees of severity. 

Possible Causes
I interviewed autism expert Jenny Potanos. She explained that, from the 1940s to the 1970s, there was a psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim who told people that autism was caused by bad parenting. He coined the term “refrigerator mothers,” which will be explained shortly. What had happened was, he had looked at a study of children with autism which showed that many of the parents, especially the mothers, were non-emotional and subdued with their children. Bettelheim used this to make the incorrect cause-effect claim that non-affectionate parents caused a child’s emotional shutdown, hence the term “refrigerator mothers.” His theory has since been proven entirely false – in fact, no study has ever shown autism to be caused by any psychological factors – but many parents still believe it is their fault, because psychologists and other “experts” often tell them so.

All sources agree that there is no single known cause of autism. Curt Warner’s Web site (“Curt Warner’s Autism Campaign”) says that there is no quick fix or guaranteed cure. There is no single cause, but it is generally accredited to abnormalities in brain structure or function. Temple Grandin, in her book “Emergence: Labeled Autistic,” says that the cerebellum, which modulates behaviors, emotions, motor skills/reflexes and smooth timing, is often underdeveloped or even damaged in autistics. She mentions that areas of the brain may not develop properly if they do not receive the necessary stimulation and input. Putting autistic children in social interactions helps to begin providing the stimulation necessary for growth. She also explains that many cases of autism originate from a defect in the wiring of the brain during fetal development, though she admits the cause is not certain.

The Autism Society of America put together a list of possible other theories, such as unstable genes, problems during pregnancy, viral infections or exposure to environmental chemicals. However, author Gail Richard, in her book “The Source for Autism,” says that most evidence shows autism is likely genetically occurring. However, it is more common in people who have certain medical conditions such as Fragile X syndrome (which affects the chromosomes), congenital rubella syndrome and tuberous sclerosis.

Experts agree: There is no cure for autism, but there are treatment options and ways to help people cope with it and lead productive lives. Autism can’t be diagnosed by medical testing, though; it is basically diagnosis based on observation. There are some warning signs to watch for: a child who doesn’t babble, coo or gesture at the age of one, doesn’t use single words at 16 months, and/or doesn't speak two-word phrases at two years. Another sign is any loss of social or language skills at any age. There are also special screening tests available (such as checklists) to help determine autism in young children. The Autism Society of America says that if autism is diagnosed at an early age, intervention can begin quickly. The Society's research suggests behavioral treatment as a starting point. Many can benefit from additional treatment options, such as special diets, medication, speech therapy, relaxation therapy techniques, art/music/animals as therapy, and also two programs designed to stimulate certain parts of the brain. The programs are known as sensory integration and auditory processing. Temple Grandin reminds us that no two children are alike; what may work successfully for one won’t work for another. The goal is to observe and then find the specific patterns of response each child exhibits and then move from there. She reminds us, “The most important component of [any] treatment plan is the presence of loving people to work with the child” (184). 

Misconceptions About Autistics
Some people think that being autistic means the person has mental retardation. Some think the person is just plain stupid. I have a younger brother, named Isaiah, who has autism. Our parents say that when Isaiah was younger, teachers often wouldn’t call on or pay attention to him. They talked down to him. He’s going to be graduating high school with a B average, so don’t tell me that autistic people aren’t capable.

Sue Waters, the department chair of special education at Wheaton North High School, said there are a number of signs people misconstrue as unintelligence: isolation from others, non-responsiveness to normal teaching methods, difficulty speaking and longer processing times. She said that an autistic person is no more stupid than a person in a wheelchair is.

Sources agree that autistic people learn differently but have a lot of capacity. The IQ and mental capacity varies, but like the rest of the general population, social skills can increase with work. Albert Einstein, Mozart and Bill Gates are all believed to be sufferers of a milder variation known as Asperger Syndrome. I have this myself.

Another common misconception is that autistic people are antisocial and/or that they cannot show emotion. Jenny Potanos says that there are a number of things that someone might think constitutes a socially or emotionally incapable person, including showing emotions inappropriate to the situation, talking to self, not talking at all, sitting alone in a corner, and under- or over-reacting to a stimulus (person, sound, etc). Some people think they’re being ignored if they don’t realize the person they’re talking to is autistic. The truth is, all sources agree, social and emotional behaviors are the most affected by autism. Temple Grandin says that an autistic child often withdraws from his or her environment to block out an onslaught of incoming stimuli. This is because of a heightened sensitivity to sensory input – a common characteristic of autistics. Gail Richard explains that autistics express emotions but that their ways of doing so are different, and so others may not realize interaction is taking place. Autistics do have difficulty relating to others, but given time and patience, they can work to overcome it. 

Conclusion / Insights
Many people know the term “autism” but not what it means, or they have misunderstandings about it. I’ve talked about a lot of information here, including why many misconceptions are unfair and wrong. There are many reasons why we make incorrect or unfair judgments … sometimes we’re biased, sometimes it’s popular opinion, sometimes an expert misinforms us. Some of us may know someone who has autism; some of us, like myself, may personally have it; some of us haven’t heard of it before. The point I’m making though, is that autistics are often misunderstood, treated unkindly, and all because someone may not realize a disability exists. If we understand the truth about autistics, we can treat them as equals and help them. And a heightened awareness of the disability can promote more research into treating the problem.

But actually, maybe the goal shouldn’t be to cure autism or modify the brain somehow; rather, maybe it should just be to help those who learn differently realize their full potential. Tony Attwood said it best [about autistics], “They are a bright thread in the rich tapestry of life. Our civilization would be extremely dull and sterile if we did not have and treasure people with [autism or] Asperger’s Syndrome.”

It occurs to me that we still don't know much about the brain. We can send a man to the moon, but we don’t know much about the weird eight-pound thing sitting right inside his head. There are more misunderstandings than most people realize, and when you look closely at such myths, they quickly dissolve.


 The Autism Society of America. 2002. The Autism Society of America.
  12 March 2003. <>.

Grandin, Temple, and Margaret M. Scariano. Emergence: Labeled Autistic.
  Novato: Arena Press, 1986.

Potanos, Jenny. Personal interview. 15 March 2003.

 Richard, Gail J. The Source for Autism. East Moline: LinguiSystems, 1997.

 Waters, Sue. Personal interview. 13 March 2003.