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Debunking Autism's Myths

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

Dear Connections, in today's blog I will be identifying the misnomers and myths that for years have been associated with autism, and that in some cases are still associated with autism. In this blog I will be highlighting the point that no one theory fits all autistic people in society.

One point of view I often hear extensively from neuro-typical people that as humans we are all a bit autistic. This view I am afraid is completely and utterly erroneous. I am of the perspective that you are either autistic or you are not. I do accept that identifying whether you are autistic or not can be hugely problematic, however logic dictates that if one can be of a single neurotype such as autism being a specific neurological state then as humans we cannot be both autistic and non-autistic at the same time. It is clear that neuro-typical and neuro-divergent people share certain similar traits. Yet, making the erroneous leap between acknowledging that both populations share the same 'trait' and subsequently assuming it means they share the same neurology is baffling in the extreme. Some may argue that there is a spectrum of humanity and that we are all on it together, which I believe is true. How, then can we label populations as one thing or another- in this case, autistic or not?

Another misconception and probably one of the most infuriating is that autistic people lack empathy. Autism is not a state of being that has stemmed from being non-empathetic. Plenty of autistic people are highly empathetic. Some may even be considered as over-empathetic. In my view empathy is not a state of mind that is readily definable. There are different types of empathy that exist and it is far too simplistic to declare that people with autism lack empathy. As if to emphasise my point I want to highlight the different levels of empathy that exist within the human mind.

The difference between the shared experience and emotional intuitive empathy is where two people share a similar experience and have a similar emotional reaction, then they could be said to have empathy with one another within this context. Yet, this shared experience type of empathy can be complicated when autism is brought into the mix. How an autistic person reacts on an emotional level might differ considerably from a neuro-typical person who has gone through a similar experience. So, while two may be able to empathise with one another if they have a shared experience, it cannot be assumed that this is the case if one individual reacts differently from the other at an emotional level. This brings me nicely onto my next point around the difference types of empathy that exist. The difference between intuitive and learned empathy is that intuitive empathy does not require any conscious thought or effort. In contrast there is also learned empathy where an individual might work out what another person is thinking or feeling, leading to a similar result in terms of understanding compared to intuitive empathy. Yet, many adults with autism spend much of their lives trying to 'work others out' with varying degrees of success. Having learnt how to understand others does not make an autistic person any less autistic, but it may be a skill that goes some way towards masking autism or leading people to believe that one might not be autistic.

Another frequent misnomer that I sadly hear all too often is that autistic people lack social skills. This again is simply not true. What is more likely to be a valid statement is that autistic people lack the intuitive ability to understand unwritten social rules of their neuro-typical contemporaries, which is a very different statement to make. To make the assumption that an autistic person is impaired in social skills is simplistic and frankly wrong- the inference being hear that the neuro-typical way of social norms is superior to the autistic way of social interaction and that if the neuro-typical way of socialising is not adhered to then it is the autistic person that is at fault. However, if one is to take a different view-and understand that to be autistic is to be part of a minority group- then one might conclude that while autistic people may be disadvantaged by not understanding neuro-typical social rules, they are certainly not impaired.

So, the question I ask what is autism? Having been a member of the autistic community for the past 23 years I don't subscribe to the medical model of autism which deems being autistic as having something wrong with you, that needs fixing. I personally accept that autism can cause lifelong serious problems for some individuals and families. The medical model of autism identifies it as a deficit, which must be fixed, cured or changed for the better. I personally subscribe to the viewpoint that the social model of autism is a more objective way of looking at autistic people as human beings and individuals. The social model implies that any problems that autistic people have is rooted in the environment they are in and that as a society it is incumbent upon the neuro-typical community to make changes and adaptations to integrate autistic people into mainstream society.

Much of the literature that exists centres principally on whether autism should be viewed as a disability, a difference, something that should be cured or maybe something that can be seen as an advantage in some circumstances. In reality, autism is different for each autistic person. The diagnostic criteria for autism within the main diagnostic manuals are based on a medial model; terms such as impairment and intellectual disability are prevalent. It is problematic to view autism exclusively in light of these terms, though, when it is absolutely clear that there are individuals, clearly autistic, who do not regard themselves in any way as disordered or impaired - or even disabled. One term that I think valuable within this context is 'disadvantage'. It is clear that most people with autism are at a distinct disadvantage directly as a consequence of being autistic within a society that does not readily understand them.

If we are to successfully integrate autistic people into society. Society needs to go beyond mere understanding of autistic people and accept autistic people for who they are not what they are labelled as. Sadly, many neuro-typical lack an 'autistic theory of mind' that they find it impossible to understand the autistic perspective. Until as a society we go beyond autism awareness to a model of acceptance and understanding then many autistic people will continue to be on the peripheries of society.

Thank you for reading and please continue to like, share and read my work.

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