Autism: Fact and Fiction

What is autism? We often hear two types of answers to this question—and these answers generally correspond to two small variations in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). These variations, however, do not define the majority of those with an ASD.

First is the idea that the person is isolated by their disorder, not interested in relating with others, possibly aggressive and has an intellectual disability.

Second is the idea that the person has great talent in a particular area that requires a high level of intellect, but that the person has severe limitations when it comes to social situations.

Why does this happen when the disorders of this type are so present in society?

In 2017, the World Health Organisation cited that 1 in 160 children had an autism spectrum disorder, making it a relatively frequent occurrence. Despite this, people know relatively little about it.

To inform and bring awareness to society about this and other disorders, works of fiction often lend a hand. They provide the means through which to understand another person’s reality from the comfort of one’s own home.

However, to capture the audience’s attention, the most interesting information on the disorder is often highlighted. This tends to lead to confusion about common features and symptoms experienced by those with a disorder of this type as only a very small cohort are affected by such characteristics. The end result is that the characteristics described are not specific to the disorder, but are rather the simple result of a work of fiction.

Savant syndrome often goes along with an ASD (though it is a rare syndrome in general). It is characterised by difficulty with social relationships and a high memory capacity that is often linked to a specific skill that is carried out at a very high level. It is estimated that only one in every ten people with an ASD have this syndrome and it is represented in films like Rain Man and The Good Doctor.

Television and cinema also represent general ASD symptoms through comedy (like in The Big Bang Theory) or drama (like in My Name is Khan). Other times it is presented more concretely, showing common symptoms and the daily life a person with an ASD as is the case in Atypical.

All of these works offer a better understanding of the characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. It is important, though, to remember that they are fictional works making it likely that some characteristics are not represented exactly how they would exist in real life.

What is an autism spectrum disorder?

As indicted by the word “spectrum”, there is as much variation amongst those who have an ASD as there is amongst those who do not.

Therefore, although the characteristics of the disorder include difficulties interacting with others and a limited repertoire of interests and behaviours, this can vary greatly from one person to the next:

There is a range of severity when it comes to having difficulty interacting with others. It can go from having limited interest in personal relationships to a different way of interacting and trouble understanding other people’s reactions.

Such difficulties with interacting are accompanied by problems with communication skills that range from not being able to employ any type of language to having fluid linguistic abilities but difficulty using them.

Additionally, the ability to imagine and understand the emotions and intentions of others is often affected. This implies greater difficulty taking part in social interactions.

A limited repertoire of interests and behaviours means that they often carry out certain behaviours repetitively and have trouble changing activities and location. This can exist to a greater or lesser extent depending on the person.

There is great variation when it comes to intellectual abilities. There are those who show clear signs of an intellectual disability and those who have average or above average intellectual ability.

Myths about ASD

  1. They are like this because their parents don’t love them or they didn’t teach them well ⇒Autism spectrum disorders stem from a neurological alteration that doesn’t have anything to do with how a person was raised.
  2. All children with an ASD have an intellectual disability ⇒ Although there are often cognitive alterations, there are children with average and above average IQ.
  3. They are not able to communicate, have feelings or express affection ⇒ Social skills depend on the person. Those with an ASD express their feelings and preferences, but they might do so in a different way.
  4. They are geniuses or they have some sort of talent ⇒ Some children might have extraordinary skills in some areas and difficulties in others. In any case, there is enormous variation.
  5. They can’t go to normal schools ⇒ They benefit from integration at school. Only in particular cases is this not useful.
  6. They are very aggressive ⇒ This is not common. While certain behaviour might come about, this can be worked on.
  7. It is an illness ⇒It is not contagious, it is not contracted in a particular way and it does not need to be cured. It comes from certain neurobiological conditions that generate a permanent disorder.
  8. They prefer to be isolated and avoid contact with others ⇒They are in fact interested in relating to others; they just do so in a different way.
  9. There are always physical signs of the disorder ⇒People with ASD do not have differentiating features.
  10. Only men can have ASD ⇒There is a higher occurrence in men than in women, but both men and women can have the disorder.
  11. They are not caring and they do not like physical contact ⇒Whether or not they express care for another person or accept physical contact as well as the way that they express it depends on the person.

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