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Debunking 8 Common Stereotypes of Individuals with Autism (Part One)

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that can affect how individuals behave, think, and interact with others. As a spectrum disorder, autism has many different subtypes, which has led to various stereotypes about what it means for an individual to have autism.

Stereotypes about autism are damaging because they can lead to bullying and increased stigmas. Parents can play a critical role in decreasing bullying and increasing understanding by teaching their children about autism. We’ll explore ways to teach children about autism in a positive way to help combat bullying and negative stereotypes in part two of this topic.

Stereotypes vs. Misconceptions

Before we dive in, let’s quickly visit the difference between stereotypes and misconceptions as these terms are sometimes misused. 

Definitions

Stereotype

A stereotype is a generalization about an entire group based on race, gender, age and so on. 

Misconception

A misconception is a misunderstanding about the facts. Stereotypes are often caused by misconceptions but can also be caused by past experiences and the media, among other influences.

Debunking 8 Common Stereotypes of Individuals with Autism

1. Individuals with Autism are Aggressive

One of the most commonly held stereotypes about individuals with autism is that they are aggressive or violent. Individuals with autism can experience outbursts just like any individual can. Like most individuals, these outbursts are often the result of a trigger.

A few key factors play a role in why an individual with autism may experience an outburst:

  • Sensory sensitivities (loud noises, physical contact, etc.)
  • Frustration from being misunderstood due to differences in communication skills
  • Social understanding
  • Bullying
  • Anxiety and stress

2. Individuals with Autism Become Obsessed About Certain Things

Another common stereotype is that individuals with autism are ‘obsessive’ about topics of interest. In this instance, ‘obsessive’ can mean an intense interest in particular things to the point that it becomes a detriment to personal health and relationships.

This does have a small amount of truth to it, in that individuals with autism can have intense interests. However, this does not apply to every individual with autism, and just as importantly, it isn’t unique to individuals with autism. Neurotypical individuals can also have acute interests; many neurotypical individuals display obsessive behavior with video games, for example.

3. Individuals with Autism are Really Smart

You may have heard the dated label ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning used to describe an individual with autism. Due to the vast complexities of autism and how it presents very differently from person to person, professionals have tried to define the more common presentations of autism. The most recognizable of these is Asperger’s or Asperger Syndrome.

There has been a significant movement away from the inclusion of specific terms like this over the past decade. Using words such as ‘Asperger’s’ has created more stigma for individuals with autism and increased stereotypes around that particular label. In fact, as of 2013, Asperger’s is no longer recognized as an official disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5).  Individuals simply fall within a range, or spectrum, of autism.

The popularization of individuals with autism being ‘smart’ oftentimes stems from the media’s portrayal of individuals with autism. Some movies focus specifically on “savants,” such as Good Will Hunting and Rain Man. Savants are incredibly gifted in particular areas, most commonly, mathematics, music, art, and languages.

4. Individuals with Autism are Unintelligent

Again, the media has played a significant role in portraying individuals with autism as unintelligent. This simply isn’t true.

As we noted above, individuals with autism have a wide range of intelligence, just like any other individual. Autism is also diagnosed in highly intelligent individuals and does not directly affect an individual’s intelligence. Additionally, an autism diagnosis does not mean that you cannot learn and develop skills, nor does it affect an individual’s ability to do well academically.

5. Individuals with Autism Cannot Communicate

People with autism can have difficulties communicating, but this does not mean they can’t communicate or speak. There are people with autism who are nonverbal, however, this is usually due to comorbidities, or other disabilities that are also present in an individual. Autism doesn’t limit a person’s ability to speak, but it can be more challenging for people with autism to communicate or express themselves in traditional ways.

6. Individuals with Autism Look Different

It is surprising when you hear someone say that an individual “looks autistic.” Autism in no way affects an individual’s physical appearance. In reality, it can be challenging for individuals to identify because autism specifies how someone’s brain works, not how they look. Autism is certainly not a disorder that presents physically.

An individual with autism may also have a physical disability that causes noticeable differences in how an individual looks, moves, or sounds, which is not autism-related.

 7. Individuals with Autism Don’t Have Emotions

Autism does not mean that someone cannot feel or express emotions. Individuals with autism experience all ranges of emotion, just like anyone else. Autism does not mean that someone cannot feel sad, happy, angry, frightened, or excited.

Sometimes, an individual with autism may display their emotions differently than one might expect, but this does not mean they are emotionless. Some individuals with autism may internalize their feelings, not as a direct result of autism, but because of external factors such as bullying or trauma. However, this can also be said for individuals who are not diagnosed with autism. Emotional intelligence and communication of emotions are traits that any individual can improve upon throughout their lifetime, whether or not they have autism.

8. Individuals with Autism Can’t Have Relationships

Individuals with autism often have difficulty communicating and reading social cues, so relationships can be more challenging.  With support, successfully interpreting social cues accurately and communicating effectively, individuals with autism can have meaningful relationships. 

In Conclusion

These are just a handful of the most common stereotypes that need dispelling so that autism can be understood in a more informed, inclusive, and positive way.

Autism does not define an individual. Autism is a beautiful part of the diverse, wonderful world in which we live.

We hope this provides you with more insight into autism. The next time you hear one of these stereotypes, perhaps you can shed light on the topic to help create a more understanding and inclusive society!


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