Ask an Aspie

I’ve recently been asked questions by customers, colleagues and friends, about having Asperger’s Syndrome or just Autism in general. So, I thought I’d post something along the lines of what I’ve been asked, in case anyone who reads this is unsure.

I like to clear up some myths and misinformation that surrounds this condition. After all, if you want to know something, you may as well go straight to the source! I should clarify… I’m not claiming to have all the answers, it’s just my opinion.

Here are some of the most common myths that I’ve come across, together with what I perceive to be the truth.

Myth – “Autism is caused by vaccination”

This is one of the biggest myths being perpetuated today. It was first brought to light in 1998 when (now disgraced and struck-off GP) Andrew Wakefield was found guilty by the General Medical Council of dishonesty and flouting ethics protocols. (BMJ 2010;340:c696) There have been many scientific research papers undertaken on this subject, and put simply, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support his claim. If it were the case, we’d have been able to replicate and prove his claims. Autism is extremely complex and appears to be caused by various combinations of factors, including genes, environmental influences, etc. Unfortunately, many parents have been seduced by Wakefield’s outright lie and have taken the extremely foolhardy and dangerous decision not to vaccinate their children. Other parents of autistic children are looking for a quick and easy answer, and for the promise of a sudden halt to autism or a “cure”.
The thing is that life is not that straightforward. Enormous efforts are being made to look at all the factors involved, with the aim of understanding autism better, and hopefully in the future finding a way of treating its more challenging symptoms in a positive and sympathetic way.

Myth – All Autistics have savant skills, just like Rain Man.

This myth is one that really irritates me. It began after the 1988 movie Rainman in which an autistic character played by Dustin Hoffman has savant-type abilities. The character is based on real-life mega-savant Kim Peek.

I used to work at a pub where a staff member and a regular used to drop cocktail sticks on the bar and tease me, asking me to tell them immediately how many sticks were in the pile. They used to call me “Raymond”, as they had seen the film Rain Man and assumed that all autistic people are like that. It’s quite simple – we can’t all recite the phone book, or tell anyone what day of the week they were born. Certainly, some Autistic people can perform some amazing memory feats, but this isn’t common. Many of us on the Autism Spectrum have various strengths, such as being visual learners or having a good visual memory. I have an exceptional memory for television and movie facts and scripts, much to the annoyance of Mrs Bob. But I’m not a savant. Just as Neurotypicals, we’re all different and all have our own talents.

“So, is that like being retarded?”

Factually speaking, in many cases Autistic people do not have an intellectual or cognitive disability. Likewise, many people who have intellectual or cognitive disabilities are not Autistic. It’s a common misconception that we are all mentally disabled and therefore slow or retarded. There are some Autistic people who also have an intellectual or cognitive disability. Nevertheless, the word “retarded” is very hurtful to use to anyone because it’s frequently used as an insult to dehumanise people. It’s also used to express hatred for people with disabilities. Please don’t use it.

“You should be very proud of yourself. You seem so normal. I couldn’t tell you’re Autistic.”

This is very frequently said to me and to other Autistic people whose autism is less obvious. It’s insulting, because it suggests that, just because the person doesn’t appear to be disabled or fit preconceptions of what Autistic people are supposed to be, they are not Autistic. It also suggests that “normal” is the standard to which anyone should aspire to appear or act and that “normal” should be the ultimate goal for therapies or treatments for autism. This isn’t the case. Instead, the goal is to teach pragmatic coping skills to navigate a world where those with autism are currently in a minority. I am proud of the skills autism has given me, not ashamed.

This phrase also gives the impression that it isn’t acceptable to act or speak in ways commonly associated with being Autistic, even if those behaviours don’t actually hurt anyone. This is dismissive of a person’s disability and experiences. It’s like saying “you’re married/have a job/go to college. You couldn’t do that if you were really Autistic.” Yes, it’s true that not every Autistic person will get married, have a job or go to college, but likewise, not every neurotypical will do those things. But plenty in both category do. This statement is insulting because it’s ableist. (For those who may not regularly read my blog, ableism is like racism, ageism or sexism, but directed toward people with disabilities).

While not every Autistic person may be able to do some or all of these things, it’s very ableist to assume that no Autistic person can, or that anyone who can do those things must be neurotypical.

It’s actually very hard to get a diagnosis of Autism. You have to fit a very specific set of criteria and there is a real reluctance to diagnose unless those criteria are met, especially adults. So, when someone has a formal diagnosis, like me, there really is very little room for doubt, and that diagnosis should be respected and accepted by everyone.

“I know a kid whose autism is really severe. You don’t seem like him.”

Every Autistic person is different, because autism is a wide-ranging spectrum. It gives a huge range of individual abilities, skills, needs and challenges. It is impossible to know what an Autistic person’s abilities and skills are versus their needs and challenges after just a brief conversation (either in person or in the comments thread of an internet post). What makes Autistic people a group united by a shared diagnosis, are the commonalities of all Autistic people. All Autistic people share some of the same core characteristics that define autism and which lead to a formal diagnosis:-

Key differences in neurological functioning, sensory and cognitive processing, and communication abilities that often manifest as disability. Autistic people are Autistic regardless of whether they look, speak or act like another Autistic person you know or know of. There is a great phrase that sums this up in my opinion:

Once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” – Dr Stephen Shaw.

“Autism is something kids grow out of”

I have heard this a number of times and it is completely wrong. We don’t grow out of our autism – it’s a lifelong condition – we just adapt as we grow up, learn to hide things and get better at adapting. I personally treat it as a science experiment – I give a response and if it causes offence or the wrong reaction, I try another response and try to remember not to use the one that didn’t work, again. If it works, I’ll try it again a few times and if I get a positive result, I’ll keep it and use it from then on.

Here are some general facts and statistics about Autism, which might surprise you:

Autism is much more common than many people think. There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – that’s more than 1 in 1001. If you include their families, autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.

Autism doesn’t just affect children. Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults.

Autism is a hidden disability – you can’t always tell if someone is autistic.

While autism is incurable, the right support at the right time can make an enormous difference to people’s lives.

34% of children on the autism spectrum say that the worst thing about being at school is being picked on.

63% of children on the autism spectrum are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them.

17% of autistic children have been suspended from school; 48% of these had been suspended three or more times; 4% had been expelled from one or more schools.

70% of autistic adults say that they are not getting the help they need from social services. The same number also said that, with more support,they would feel less isolated.

At least one in three autistic adults are experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of support.

Only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment, and only 32% are in some kind of paid work.

Only 10% of autistic adults receive employment support but 53% say they want it.

Around 700,000 people may be autistic. That’s more than 1 in 100 in the population. There is no register or exact count kept.

The latest studies of autism indicate that 1.1% of the population in the UK may be on the autism spectrum. This means that over 695,000 people in the UK may be autistic – an estimate derived from the 1.1% prevalence rate applied to the 2011 UK census.

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