Saturday, May 4, 2013

Myths And Facts About Autism, Part I

We've probably all heard of the movie Rain Man. If you haven't, it's about a man who learns that his estranged father has left a considerable fortune to a brother he didn't know existed. When the man goes to meet this brother, he discovers that the brother has a disorder called autism. Not really knowing what to make of this, he spends much of the rest of the film finding a way into his brother's very unique mind. For many, this is the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word 'autism'.

First of all, what is autism? Autism is a neurological disorder in which a child's brain is 'wired' differently from that of the average person, causing problems with the development of various skills as the child grows older. The parts of the brain that are most often affected are those that control things like social skills, communication, motor skills and learning. While this is a very complex disorder that is very difficult to describe in a brief article, here are some common myths and corresponding facts.

Myth-Autism is a mental disorder.
Fact-It's a neurological disorder, which means that an autistic person's brain processes information differently from the 'average' person. For instance, many people with diagnoses of autism are particularly sensitive to touch or sound. Others have ritualistic behaviors such as nail biting, constant rocking back-and-forth and various other tics. Yes, the same manual used to diagnose mental disorders (Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-IV) is used to diagnose autism, but the fact that the brains of autistic people are structured differently from others show that it's not something you can take medications to cure. It's possible that therapy can help an autistic person learn coping and social skills, but it's not 'curable'.

Myth-Autistic people are all alike.
Fact-Autistic people are no more monolithic than any other group. Autism, like a lot of other disorders, is on a very broad spectrum-meaning, there is a wide range of behaviors and symptoms.

Myth-Vaccination requirements in public schools have contributed to the rise in autism diagnoses in the past few decades.
Fact-This is wrong on two counts. First, studies have shown that the rumors regarding the link between vaccines and autism are just that-rumors. The same goes for the old thought that autism is caused by having cold, disconnected parents. It's not entirely certain what causes autism, so blaming it on one or two external factors is counterproductive.
Also, while it is true that more children are being diagnosed with autism than in previous decades, this doesn't necessarily mean it's happening more often. What's much more likely is that the diagnostic criteria is changing as more is other words, doctors are able to put a name to more cases and thus develop more therapies and treatment options.

Myth-Autistic people are 'savants' (people with special abilities, such as being able to solve complex math problems in their heads or memorize the Periodic Table of Elements).
Fact-Since many 'savants' are portrayed as being autistic on television and in movies, it's easy to see where this misconception comes from. Frankly, these stories make for much better movies than the 'humdrum' lives most of us lead. However, this is only one manifestation of autism. Like I said above, autism has a very broad spectrum.

For the sake of my attention span, this article will be continued in another post.

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