Autism Myths and Facts


Healthy Living – April 18, 2017
Mark R. Allen, MD – Acadia Hospital
April is National Autism Awareness Month!  Most children are very social creatures by nature, but some may appear to exist in their own world, a place characterized by repetitive routines, odd and peculiar behaviors, problems in communication, and a total lack of social awareness or interest in others. These latter children may have signs and symptoms of the developmental disorder known as autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by:
  • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities
  • Presence of symptoms in the early developmental period (typically recognized in the first two years of life)
  • Symptoms that cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
Some of the early signs and symptoms which suggest a young child may need further evaluation for autism include:
  • no smiling by six months of age
  • no back and forth sharing of sounds, smiles or facial expressions by nine months
  • no babbling, pointing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • no single words by 16 months
  • no two word phrases by 24 months
  • regression in development
  • any loss of speech, babbling or social skills
The severity of autism varies widely, from mild to severe.  Some children are very bright and do well in school, although they have problems with school adjustment.  They may be able to live independently when they grow up.  Other children with autism function at a much lower level.  Intellectual disability is commonly associated with autism.

Common Misconceptions about Autism:

Myth: People with autism can’t (or don’t want to) understand the emotions of others.
Truth: Individuals with autism may struggle to pick up nonverbal cues, sarcasm, or body language. However, when emotions are communicated more directly, people with autism are much more likely to feel empathy and compassion for others.

Myth: Autism is caused by vaccines.
Truth: There is absolutely, positively NO evidence to support the concept that vaccines cause autism.  There is NO giant conspiracy.  The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institute of Health ALL are in agreement that the tie between vaccines and autism is NONSENSE.  Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who started the decade-plus long world-wide frenzy about thimerosal/vaccines causing autism, has had his medical license revoked in the UK, and he has publicly refuted his own work.  In fact, he admitted to falsifying the data (and recruiting anti-vaccine families into the study) in order to build a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company that made the vaccine.

While there is no known cause for autism, it is suspected to be both genetic and environmental in origin.
Potential risk factors: Advanced parent age (either parent), pregnancy and birth complications (e.g. extreme prematurity [before 26 weeks], low birth weight, multiple pregnancies [twin, triplet, etc.]), pregnancies spaced less than one year apart
Potential protective factor: Prenatal vitamins containing folic acid, before and at conception and through pregnancy 
Myth: The prevalence of autism has been steadily increasing for the last 40 years.
Truth: The rate of autism has increased by 600% in the last 20 years.  In 1975, an estimated 1 in 1,500 had autism. In 2014, an estimated 1 in 68 in the U.S. had an autism spectrum disorder.  1% of the world population has ASD.  The rise in autism prevalence was likely due to factors such as increased recognition, a greater willingness on the part of educators and families to accept the diagnostic label, and better recording systems.

Myth: People with autism will have it forever.
Truth: Recent research has shown that some (not all) children with autism (especially of a milder severity) can make enough improvement after intensive early intervention to “test out” of the autism diagnosis. This is more evidence for the importance of addressing autism when the first signs appear and there IS hope.

What to do if you are concerned about your child:
  • Contact your child’s doctor, and share your concerns.
  • Request a referral to one of the following specialists for a more in-depth evaluation of your child
    • Developmental Pediatrician
    • Child Neurologist
    • Child Psychologist or Psychiatrist