Disability or Different Ability: Understanding Autism, Misconceptions and How Autistic Persons Can Live a Happy and Fulfilling Life

Tochukwu Nathaniel

A lot of people have heard about the word Autism, but very few really understand what it is. There are loads of misconceptions and misinformation about Autism, which fuels the stigma faced by people living with it. 

Autism is like a puzzle with many pieces, each unique and special. It affects how people see and experience the world. It’s a neurodevelopmental condition that influences how people perceive and interact with the world around them. You see, for someone with autism, everyday experiences can be a bit like navigating through a maze. Imagine navigating life with the rules constantly changing, the paths always shifting. That’s the reality for someone with autism. Simple things we take for granted, like making eye contact, understanding sarcasm, or picking up on social cues, can be significant hurdles for people with this disorder. It’s like speaking a different language or trying to decipher a code that everyone else seems to understand effortlessly.

Myths and truths of Autism
Myths and truths of Autism

Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions of Autism

Awareness of autism is growing, but there is still a lot of confusion, myths, and misconceptions surrounding what autism is, what causes it, and how it affects people in very different ways. Below are some of them: 

 Myth 1: The appearance of autism is relatively new

Truth: Autism was first described by scientist Leo Kranner in 1943, but the earliest description of a child now known to have had autism was written in 1799. Ongoing research and improvements in diagnosis have identified that the characteristics of autism exist on a continuum with varying degrees of severity, intensity, and frequency. 

Myth 2: Autism is a mental health disorder

 Truth: Autism is a neurological disorder. Studies of people with autism have revealed abnormalities in brain structure and neurotransmitter levels. What is commonly overlooked is that individuals with developmental disabilities are twice as likely to have a co-occurring mental health disorder that also needs treatment or, at times, may render them in need of acute mental health stabilization while also taking into consideration developmental disability.

Myth 3: All individuals with autism have mental disabilities

Truth: Individuals on the autism spectrum are unique, with a wide range of intellectual abilities. Individuals with autism can be harder to test, so IQ and abilities can be under or over-estimated unless an expert does testing on IDD and autism. Tests designed to include language and interpersonal analyses may misrepresent the intelligence of people with autism who struggle with social skills. Many individuals on the autism spectrum have earned college and graduate degrees and work in various professions. Conversely, it is sometimes mistakenly assumed that an individual with autism has a higher level of understanding than they do, based on their behaviour, language skills, or high level of ability in a specific area.

Myth 4: Autism is caused by vaccines

Truth: There is no evidence that childhood vaccination causes autism. A 1998 study linking autism with vaccines has since been retracted, and numerous studies continue to confirm that there is no direct evidence that links vaccines to the development of autism.

Myth 5: Autism is caused by poor parenting or “refrigerator mothers.”

Truth: In the 1950s, there was an assumption that emotionally distant or cold parents caused autism. Though the exact cause of autism has not been determined, it is now firmly established that the development of autism has nothing to do with parenting style.

Myth 6: Autism is caused solely by environmental factors

Truth: Genes have been identified as one of the causes of autism. Parents whose first child has autism are more likely than the general population to have a second child with autism. Identical twin studies have shown that if one twin has autism, the other has a 90 percent chance of having autism as well. However, environmental factors can contribute to symptom severity for some individuals.

Myth 7: Individuals with autism are violent

Truth: Though there have been recent news stories relating autism to violence, aggressive acts from autistic individuals usually arise from sensory overload or emotional distress, and it is unusual for individuals with autism to act violently out of malice or pose any danger to society. Many individuals prefer to limit their exposure and interactions with other people because social situations can feel confusing and anxiety-provoking.

Myth 8: All individuals with autism have savant abilities.

Truth: While there is a higher prevalence of savant abilities among those with autism, only about 10 percent of individuals with autism exhibit savant abilities. Some individuals with autism have “splinter skills,” meaning skills above their overall performance abilities in one or two areas.

Myth 9: Individuals with autism do not feel love. Individuals with autism are unable or unwilling to form meaningful social relationships.

Truth: Though many individuals with autism have difficulty with social interaction, they can have close social relationships, fall in love, and even raise children. Some people may express their loving feelings in less obvious ways, but it does not mean they are incapable of experiencing or expressing love.

Myth 10: People with autism are cold and lack empathetic feelings

Truth: Individuals with autism feel as much, if not more, empathy as others, but they may express it in ways that are harder to recognize. Some individuals with autism may seem “cold or uncaring” if they are very anxious or if they are expected to show care or empathy in a more “typical” way.

Myth 11: People with autism can’t stand to be touched.

Truth: This can be true for some people who have high sensory sensitivities, but many individuals with autism enjoy hugs, light massage, and other forms of touch.

Myth 12: People with autism have no sense of humour.

Truth: This may be true for some people with autism, but the individual is likelier to express or share humour in unique or less obvious ways. Many parents report that their family members may tease, tell jokes, or mimic comedy actions or lines appropriately, anticipating others to be entertained.

Myth 13: Autism can be cured.

Truth: There is currently no cure for autism spectrum disorders. However, early and intensive behavioural treatment can, in many cases, reduce the severity of symptoms and help individuals develop adaptive skills for daily living, emotional and behavioural regulation and social engagement.

Challenges faced by people living with Autism
Challenges faced by people living with Autism

Challenges People Living With Autism Face

Living with autism presents a unique set of challenges that can vary from person to person. They could range from social to cognitive, mental, etc.

1. Sensory Overload

 Imagine being bombarded by sights, sounds, and sensations. For many individuals with autism, sensory stimuli can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of anxiety or distress. Simple activities like grocery shopping or attending a crowded event can become a daunting experience.

2. Communication Difficulties

Expressing thoughts, feelings, and needs can be challenging for those with autism. Verbal communication may be limited or non-existent, and understanding nonverbal cues such as facial expressions or body language can be perplexing. This communication barrier often leads to frustration and misunderstandings.

3. Social Interaction

Navigating social situations can feel like navigating a maze for individuals with autism. Difficulty understanding social cues, initiating conversations, or maintaining eye contact can make forming connections daunting. As a result, many individuals with autism may feel isolated or excluded from social activities.

Routine and Sensitivity: Many individuals with autism thrive on routine and predictability. Any deviation from their established routine can cause significant distress and anxiety. Also, heightened sensitivity to certain stimuli, such as bright lights or loud noises, can overwhelm everyday environments.

4. Executive Functioning 

Organizing tasks, planning, and managing time can pose challenges for individuals with ASD. Executive functioning difficulties can impact daily activities such as completing chores, following instructions, or meeting deadlines.

5. Stigma and Misunderstanding

Despite increased awareness, stigma and misconceptions surrounding autism persist. Individuals with autism may face discrimination, bullying, or social exclusion due to misunderstandings about their condition. This stigma can negatively impact self-esteem and mental health.

6. Transitions and Change 

Transitioning between activities or adapting to changes in routine can be particularly challenging for individuals with autism. Adjusting to new environments, people, or situations may trigger anxiety or meltdowns as they struggle to cope with the unfamiliar.

7. Co-occurring Conditions 

Many individuals with ASD may also experience co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder. Managing these additional challenges alongside autism can further complicate daily life and require specialized support.

Challenges Faced by Families of Autistic Individuals

Living with a family member who has autism presents its own set of challenges, impacting not just the individual with autism but the entire family unit. 

1. Accessing Services and Support

Finding appropriate services and support for a family member with ASD can be a complex and daunting process. Families may encounter barriers such as long waitlists, limited availability of specialized services, or navigating complex healthcare and educational systems.

2. Financial Strain

The costs associated with raising a child with autism can be significant. Families may face financial strain in accessing the resources their loved one needs, from therapy sessions and medical expenses to specialized education and adaptive equipment.

3. Impact on Siblings

Siblings of individuals with ASD may experience unique challenges as they navigate their family dynamic. They may feel overlooked or neglected due to the additional attention and resources required by their sibling with autism. Additionally, they may struggle to understand and cope with their sibling’s behaviours and needs.

4. Daily Routine Disruptions

Individuals with autism often thrive on routine and predictability. Any disruption to their daily routine, such as changes in schedule or unexpected events, can lead to stress and anxiety for the entire family. Families may need to adjust to accommodate their loved one’s needs, which can be challenging.

5. Social Isolation

Families of individuals with ASD may experience social isolation due to the unique demands of caring for their loved ones. Attending social events or outings may be challenging, and families may feel misunderstood or judged by others unaware of their situation.

6. Emotional Impact 

Caring for a family member with ASD can take a toll on the emotional well-being of caregivers. Families may experience feelings of exhaustion, guilt, or frustration as they navigate the challenges of caregiving. Families need to prioritize self-care and seek support when needed.

7. Planning for the Future

Planning for the future of a family member with autism can be daunting. Families may worry about long-term care arrangements, financial stability, and ensuring their loved one’s quality of life as they transition into adulthood.

Treatment Approaches and Support for People Living with Autism

Behavioural Approaches

Behavioural approaches focus on changing behaviours by understanding what happens before and after the behaviour. Behavioural approaches have the most evidence for treating symptoms of ASD. They have become widely accepted among educators and healthcare professionals and are used in many schools and treatment clinics. A notable behavioural treatment for people with ASD is called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA encourages desired behaviours and discourages undesired behaviours from improving various skills. Progress is tracked and measured.

Two ABA teaching styles are Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and Pivotal Response Training (PRT).

DTT uses step-by-step instructions to teach a desired behaviour or response. Lessons are broken down into their simplest parts, and desired answers and behaviours are rewarded. Undesired answers and behaviours are ignored.

PRT takes place in a natural setting rather than a clinical setting. PRT aims to improve a few “pivotal skills” to help the person learn many other skills. One example of a pivotal skill is to initiate communication with others.

Developmental Approaches

Developmental approaches focus on improving specific developmental skills, such as language or physical skills, or a broader range of interconnected developmental abilities. Developmental approaches are often combined with behavioural approaches.

The most common developmental therapy for people with ASD is Speech and Language Therapy. Speech and Language Therapy helps to improve the person’s understanding and use of speech and language. Some people with ASD communicate verbally. Others may communicate through signs, gestures, pictures, or an electronic communication device.

Occupational Therapy teaches skills that help the person live as independently as possible. Skills may include dressing, eating, bathing, and relating to people. Occupational therapy can also include:

Sensory Integration Therapy to help improve responses to sensory input that may be restrictive or overwhelming.

Physical Therapy can help improve physical skills, such as fine movements of the fingers or larger movements of the trunk and body.

The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) is a broad developmental approach based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. It is used with children 12-48 months of age. Parents and therapists use play, social exchanges, and shared attention in natural settings to improve language, social, and learning skills.

Educational Approaches

Educational treatments are given in a classroom setting. One educational approach is the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children (TEACCH) approach. TEACCH is based on the idea that people with autism thrive on consistency and visual learning. It allows teachers to adjust the classroom structure and improve academic and other outcomes. For example, daily routines can be written, drawn, and placed in clear sight. Boundaries can be set around learning stations. Verbal instructions can be complemented with visual instructions or physical demonstrations.

Social-Relational Approaches

Social-relational treatments focus on improving social skills and building emotional bonds. Some social-relational approaches involve parents or peer mentors.

The Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based model (also called “Floor time”) encourages parents and therapists to follow the interests of the individual to expand opportunities for communication.

The Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) model involves activities that increase motivation, interest, and ability to participate in shared social interactions.

Social Stories provide simple descriptions of what to expect in a social situation.

Social Skills Groups allow people with ASD to practice social skills in a structured environment.

Pharmacological Approaches

There are no medications that treat the core symptoms of ASD. Some medications treat co-occurring symptoms that can help people with ASD function better. For example, medication might help manage high energy levels, inability to focus, or self-harming behaviour, such as head banging or hand biting. Medication can also help manage co-occurring psychological conditions, such as anxiety or depression, in addition to medical conditions, such as seizures, sleep problems, or stomach or other gastrointestinal problems.

It is essential to work with a doctor who has experience in treating people with ASD when considering the use of medication. This applies to both prescription medication and over-the-counter medication. Individuals, families, and doctors must work together to monitor progress and reactions to be sure that the adverse side effects of the medication do not outweigh the benefits.

Psychological Approaches

Psychological approaches can help people with ASD cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) is one psychological approach that focuses on learning the connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. During CBT, a therapist and the individual work together to identify goals and then change how the person thinks about a situation to change how they react.

Complementary and Alternative Treatments

Some individuals and parents use treatments that do not fit the other categories. These treatments are known as Complementary and Alternative treatments. Complementary and alternative treatments are often used to supplement more traditional approaches. They might include special diets, herbal supplements, chiropractic care, animal therapy, art therapy, mindfulness, or relaxation therapies. Individuals and families should always talk to their doctor before starting a complementary and alternative treatment.


Living Colorfully: Seeing Autism Through New Lenses

Autism isn’t just one thing; it’s a beautiful mix of experiences and perspectives. Instead of just focusing on the tough parts, looking at autistic persons as people simply viewing and interacting with the world differently helps us see all the fantastic things that come with it. When we understand and appreciate the unique talents and strengths of people with autism, we make our world a brighter, more inclusive place. Together, we can ensure everyone gets the support and respect they deserve, no matter what colour they add to the picture of life.


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