Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are umbrella terms used to refer to a life-long neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how a person understands and interacts with the world around them. It is used for previously distinct conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome, Rett’s syndrome, Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.
ASD is characterized in varying degrees by difficulties in two main areas:
1) social interaction and communication and
2) restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviours and interests
Often individuals with ASD have different ways of learning, paying attention and reacting to various physical sensations. Some also have co-occurring conditions such as speech and language difficulties, motor movement difficulties, intellectual disability, anxiety etc.
In Singapore, with increased awareness of ASD among informed and concerned parents as well as teachers, there has been an increasing amount of children diagnosed with ASD. However, knowledge of this disorder remains to be plagued by outdated and dubious research findings and societal misconceptions. Here are 10 common misconceptions about children with ASD.
#1: Autism can be cured
False. There is no current evidence for a ‘cure’ for autism. Children with autism do not ‘outgrow’ autism but are required to be taught skills to cope and adapt.
#2: All children with autism are gifted or possess extraordinary talents
False. While there have been cases of individuals with autism who have an unusual set of talents, they are a minority. Most individuals with autism do not have skills that can be distinguished as extraordinary talents. In fact, the intellectual abilities of persons with ASD can vary from gifted to severely challenge. Also noteworthy, intellectual ability and severity of ASD make up the two key factors commonly used to help understand and better cater to the learning needs of individuals with ASD in Singapore.
#3: All children with autism like to be alone
False. Although individuals with autism may find it difficult to initiate and maintain social interactions, this does not make social relationships impossible, nor does it imply that they prefer being alone. The unpredictability of another person in terms of what they may say or do, paired with a restricted knowledge base and skill set of how to cope with the various social situations may be one of the contributing factors to them seemingly preferring to be left alone. As speech therapists who also work with children with ASD, we have frequently met children with ASD who yearn to make friends but simply require help to develop the required appropriate social skill set to do so.
#4: Children with autism cannot feel or express any emotions
False. Children with ASD can certainly feel and express emotions. More often than not, due to their unique understanding of the world and experience with social interactions, children with ASD may express their feelings in ways that others may find it difficult to understand or accept. For example, giggling or laughing incessantly when doing a particular task may actually be a way of expressing anxiety with a task that may be too difficult for them.
#5: Autism is caused by poor parenting
Not true. Studies have shown that autism has no association with parenting styles.
#6: A child with autism experiencing a meltdown is the same as a child throwing temper tantrums
False. A meltdown is a common characteristic experienced by children with ASD. It is not to be confused with temper tantrums. There are many ways to differentiate between a meltdown and a tantrum. For example, when a child is throwing tantrums, he or she is looking to have his or her “wants” fulfilled, while a child experiencing a meltdown has no such objectives.
#7: It is not good for my child to frequently play with another child who has ASD, he will learn to be like that child
Not true. ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder; it is not contagious and cannot be learnt or unlearnt. Studies have shown that families with a child with ASD and a sibling without ASD will attest that even high frequency and long term “exposure” to a child with ASD, cannot negatively affect the social, communication and behavioural development of a child without ASD.
#8: My child with ASD doesn’t speak, so he doesn’t understand what we are saying too
False. There is an important difference between speech output and understanding language. Speaking is the use of voice to say words that carry meaning. Language understanding is the ability to hear and listen to the words and derive meaning from it. Just because a child is not producing words, it does not mean he cannot understand or learn to understand what different words, sentences and things we say mean.
#9 Autism is caused by vaccines
Uncertain. Currently, there are no evidence that childhood vaccination causes autism. A 1998 study associating autism to vaccines has since been retracted.
# 10 Gluten free Casein free (GFCF) diet is a new treatment that has been proven to help children with ASD
False. Latest scientific reports provided no support for GFCF diets in the intervention for children with ASD. In fact, these research reports have suggested that negative bone health is frequently associated with GFCF diets. Currently, GFCF diet is strongly recommended with the advice of medical practitioners for children with food allergies or intolerance to gluten and/or casein.
Contributed by Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities Speech Therapists Sephine Goh, (THK Children’s Therapy Centre) and Yvonne Kuan (THK Therapy Services – THK Children’s Therapy Centre@MacPherson)
This was first published in The New Age Parents e-magazine