Jun 26, 2017


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Professors Corner

Autism: Dispelling the Myths and Portraying the Truths

by Eric Shyman

There is little question that both scientific and social interest in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is increasing. Seldom does even one week pass without a news story, a newspaper article, a magazine piece, or a character portrayal on television or in movies involving autism. This can be bittersweet for those directly involved or affected by ASD. With increased awareness come the benefits of exposure, focus, attention, and interest. However, there also comes an opportunity for an influx of invalid, inaccurate, and unfounded information producing either quixotic stories of hope or charlatans offering a gamut of treatments. When it comes to ASD, there has been no shortage of either one. It is the intention of this article to take some of the common claims on each side and explain why such claims are either clearly myth or seemingly truth.

1 in 110 Children Have Autism

Most people are dissatisfied with just saying there is an “increase” in ASD so, naturally, we look for numbers to make sense of what is really going on. The most common statistic cited is of-fered by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which last claimed that an accurate prevalence of autism is 1/110 children in the United States are diagnosed with ASD. There are three main prob-lems with this statistic (though more reveal themselves with closer and closer examinations). First, the definition of ASD used was not clear (ASD is both a spectrum disorder and a subtyped dis-order, meaning there are a variety of “kinds” of autism differing greatly- this makes it difficult for any statistic to be accurate). Second, this statistic was determined by analyzing a database to deter-mine how many 8-year olds across 13 states were “entered” as having been diagnosed with ASD (can we trust that the 13 states used represent the entire country?). Third, it does not really clarify whether there are more actual cases of ASD, or whether it is simply being diagnosed more often. Because of this confusion, this statistic has to be deemed a myth. More conservative estimates based on more careful studies place the prevalence of autism at 1–3/1000 (again, considering the vast spectrum of ASD).

Autism Is an Epidemic

While the term “epidemic” has taken on a colloquial meaning as much as a clinical one, this statement must be considered a myth. Though there seems to be little question that the diagnosis of autism has been increasing, there are questions as to whether this is, indeed, a true in-crease in incidence (that is, there are more kids who are, indeed, autistic), or whether it involves a different diagnostic criteria and diagnostic replacement: the idea that kids who several years ago would be classified as having mental retardation, now known as intellectual disability, are now diagnosed as having an ASD or kids who would not be diagnosed at all are now being diagnosed with less severe classifications such as Asperger’s Disorder or Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified. The answer to this question (that is, the question of diagnostic replacement) remains hotly debated and is in no way truly understood with no theory offering any peremptory evidence. However, regarding the question of epidemic, the reliable research available has determined, quite convincingly, that autism does not fit the definition of a true, clinical epidemic.

Autism Has Many Likely Causes

Though no specific cause or causes have been found to be anywhere near definitive, this characterization seems to be a truth. Many of us who have experience with kids with autism know that, though they share a common diagnosis, they are all quite different from one another; the scientific research seems to be supporting this idea as well, and is beginning to make some headway in determining some likely explanations for these differences. There are a multitude of fields investigating the causes of autism from environmental science to genetics to neurobiology, and many other fields in between. While the research findings investigating potential causes of ASD are interesting and becoming more sophisticated, there is no reason to believe that any have been conclusive.

There Are Different Types of Autism

Similar to the above characterization, this also appears to be a truth. Children sharing the diagnosis of autism likely only share very general characteristics. Autism, broadly speaking, refers to “abnormalities” in three main areas: behavior, language, and social functioning. What this looks like can be as different as the surnames of the individuals who are diagnosed. While some individuals seem to get lost entirely in their “stereotypical behaviors” such as hand flapping, jumping, or self-singing, others exhibit nearly none, preferring intense and continuous conversation on various esoteric topics such as volcanoes, roller coasters, and fire alarms. Whether these different types of autism can be linked to different causes is still poorly understood. Researchers continue to fervently investigate these questions and are making some progress.

Autism Can Be Cured

Despite the fervent, passionate, and deeply understandable beliefs of parents to children who may have come very far and can appear as being “cured,” this is much more likely a myth. Remember that autism is a behavioral diagnosis. That is, there is neither a definitive blood test nor any biological marker that can determine the absence of the condition after treatment. If there is no definitive way to characterize a condition, then there cannot be any definitive way to typify its absence once it’s been established. That being said, it is imperative for parents and practitioners to know that it is very possible for individuals with autism to make marked improvements in all areas of their condition, even to the point that it appears nearly undetectable.

Individuals with Autism Have Savant Skills

While this may be an entertaining concept, it is, quite clearly, a myth. Often over-portrayed in the media, it is not accurate to say that individuals with autism are any more likely to have a savant skill (or an extraordinary ability) than individuals without autism. Perhaps it can appear more impressive that an individual who possesses such distinct difficulty functioning in other areas of life can be so gifted in a specialized area; however, this is not, in any way, indicative of autism itself. While instantaneous calculations, ability to know days of the week from dates and years, and seemingly esoteric trivial facts can be amusing and amazing, they are not, by any means, autism.

Individuals with Autism Are Capable of Being Educated in Mainstream Classes

This characterization is absolutely a truth, but one that needs careful consideration. It is a foundational belief of educators that all individuals can learn. However, the conditions must be clear. Many (if not most) individuals with autism can learn in any environment to some degree, so long as the supports they need to do so are available. It is important for educationists of all kinds to recognize that learning in a mainstream (or “regular”) classroom does not mean that learning and teaching has to be the same for everyone- in fact, it shouldn’t. All individuals (with or without disabilities) should be given access to all of the supports and opportunities for enrichment they may need. Therefore, as all other individuals can learn in any environment under the right condi-tions, so can individuals with autism.

Individuals with Autism Only Respond to Applied Behavior Analysis

This characterization must receive a resounding myth status, though one with a careful explanation. While the method of using behavioral interventions, also known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can be (and often is) successful in replacing and reducing undesirable or socially inappropriate behaviors as well as some academic skills, the approach can be very limited. Other educational approaches that focus on cognitive, developmental, and linguistic (or language-based) factors have also been shown to be as effective based on scientific research. Ultimately, ABA is an important facet of any learning system, but should in no way represent the entirety of an educational approach for individuals with autism. Other research based approaches include Pivotal Response Training (PRT), which is similar in foundation to ABA, SCERTS (a more developmental approach), and Developmental Individual Relationship Based Model (though not possessive of as much direct research support, it is based in empirically supported models of brain development). What most experienced teachers will validate is that there is no “one-size-fits all” approach in education for anyone, so there is no reason to believe this is different for kids with autism.



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