7 Autism Myths: “High-Functioning Autism” and Asperger’s Syndrome

“He’s a little autistic, but he’s fine.” You may have heard someone describe an individual with “high-functioning autism,” Asperger’s Syndrome, or PDD-NOS in this way, actually believing they are being complimentary (See how Ben describes this label in my earlier post). The language used to describe verbal autistics (in terms of how they compare to neurotypicals) leads to some common misunderstandings about autism. Individuals with what some refer to as “high-functioning autism” (See Autism Language Mistakes download for why not to use this term), Asperger’s Syndrome, or PDD-NOS often experience regular discrimination due to these misunderstandings.

Autism Myths

Below is a list of some of most common autism myths:

  1. Autism Myth #1: All “Aspies” or “HFAs” are the same.

    Autistic people have different interests, strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, just like neurotypical people do. Grouping all autistic people together ignores individual needs and restricts social, emotional, and educational development.

  2. Autism Myth #2: They lack empathy.

    This myth has been attacked by self-advocates for years, yet I still hear parents talk about it. Many self-advocates explain that they do empathize with emotional situations, but sometimes the way they process grief or intense emotions is different from their neurotypical counterparts, thus the impression is that empathy doesn’t exist.

  3. Autism Myth #3: They are lazy.

    Autistic people often engage with the world with more deliberation and effort than neurotypicals do. This means that at the end of the day they can experience exhaustion not only from the physical demands of school or their jobs, but also from the stress of socialization and carefully meeting other people’s expectations. Tasks that come naturally to neurotypicals (e.g. navigating a crowded hallway, participating in a work meeting or group assignment) can demand much more energy and focus from autistics. This means that autistic people might need more alone time to relax and disengage. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are lazy. If you are worried your child is being unproductive to the point that it is impacting his health, you can try introducing a system where he can pick from several activities that he enjoys during his “off-time” at home.

  4. Autism Myth #4: They are “high-functioning” in all areas so they don’t need much support.

    A label of “high functioning” isn’t as descriptive as many people think it is. The name mistakenly groups autistic individuals into a category that assumes they can do everything a neurotypical can with the exception of being a little awkward in social settings. But “high functioning” cannot possibly refer to all of the tasks humans perform on a daily basis. Some autistic people are “high functioning” when it comes to one skill (in other words, they can perform it well by the standards of a neurotypical society), but then “low functioning” when asked to perform a different task. Sometimes they act high functioning one day in a specific environment, but then fail to perform at this level when outside of the home or in a setting with uncomfortable sensory triggers. On the other hand, even autistic people who are identified as “low functioning” can have “high functioning” skills as well. These terms falsely identify autistics and don’t do justice to the unique skill sets and needs of people all over the spectrum.

  5. Autism Myth #5: All people with Asperger’s Syndrome have a special savant-like talent.

    Some autistic people have savant-like skills. Most do not. The pressure to have a special talent can lead some children to feel objectified and can lower their self-esteem if they feel they do not possess a talent that lives up to the expectations of the people around them. Treat autistic people like you would any other neurotypical person in this regard. Assume that they have unique skills and deficits, just like any other person.

  6. Autism Myth #6: They don’t want to be social.

    Autistic people enjoy socialization and companionship, but they may not know how to successfully engage. Angela discussed this difficulty in an earlier post. Both autistics and neurotypicals enjoy being alone as well as with friends. Try not to make assumptions about how autistic people feel and communicate directly whenever possible. You may be misunderstanding someone’s “preference” to be alone.

  7. Autism Myth #7: They can eventually outgrow it (or at least hide it) if they try hard enough.

    Constantly treating autism as something that needs to be “fought off” can damage an autistic person’s self-esteem if he feels that autism is a part of his identity (See Top 5 Autism Language Mistakes You’re Making). If your child hears you talk about how happy you are that you “caught it early” or that he “finally outgrew it” and then he feels the effects of his autism later in life, he may feel bad about lingering symptoms (which he experiences even though they may be invisible to others) and think he still needs to be “fixed.” Don’t pressure people to hide their autism, instead accept that they will have more struggles than their neurotypical counterparts, and help support them in whatever way you can.

These autism myths represent stereotypes that can hurt autistic people and further alienate them from society. What others you have encountered?

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