Autism Myths: Let the Debunking Begin

In recognition of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, CNN is planning a report on myths of autism (such as that “thimerosal in vaccines is the main cause for autism”) and ask readers:

  • Do you think that there are prevailing myths related to autism? What are they?
  • What questions do you need answered?
  • Does autism touch your life? Tell us your story here: Autism iReport

Here’s 10 myths about autism on Wrong Planet including “autism is an epidemic” and “most autistics are ‘low-functioning (and for some further debunking of the whole notion of “high vs. low functioning,” see Asperger Square 8‘s post entitled I Am Joe’s Functioning Label).

Let the debunking begin!

Share This Post:
    • Harold L Doherty

      The examples you mention are not properly classified as myths. Not by an objective view of these matters anyway. You should do some research on these issues before rubber stamping every Neurodiversity tenet as being accepted fact.

      I won’t try to dissuade you from your ideology but non-Neurodiversity visitors to your site should know that some of your examples are far from being myths.

    • Joeymom

      Define “far from being myths.” All the things listed here either have no proof to back them up (such as the “epidemic” issue) or have been disproven (such as the “thimerosal” issue).

      But I think I would prefer a focus on things such as “autistic people are not social” (obviously they haven’t met my Joey), “70% of autistic people are mentally retarded” (not being able to speak is not the same as being mentally retarded), and “autistic people are violent” (you might be surprised how widespread this belief is). You, build some awareness that autistic people are… people.

    • shawng3k

      Its not just many Autistics that would not want a cure if one were offered. The choice, would of course, be my sons – he is who he is, because of his Autism. The things I have learned from him as a result, the person that he is shows so clearly because of it. He is MY son, Autism and all.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Muthos is ancient Greek and simply means a story, a tale, something told; a traditional story. Saying that autism is an epidemic is a commonly held notion (perhaps even a sort of rumor) that has gotten a lot of play and publicity in no small part due to the internet. “Epidemic” speaks to how people feel about autism—-about how they seem suddenly to be seeing a lot of autistic persons, when they had not before. Of course, what one “feels” isn’t exactly “science.”

      And the ancient Greeks still managed to believe in their myths and in science (well, some of them did).

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Also, it’s the notions that my son is “withdrawn” and “in his own world” that seem very untrue, and that he is “not emotional” or “affectionate.” Always a loving kid with big smiles and hugs for us; always so aware; always trying so hard to get his message across.

    • Harold L Doherty


      I am not going to spend time arguing the definition of myth. In law, and in common sense, he or she who asserts, must prove. That being said the functioning label issue is clearly not a matter which is properly referred to as myth in the formal sense Ms Chew has offered or in popular usage. Low functioning autism is a term used in scholarly journals by autism researchers. It is also a matter of simple observation and common sense.

      Dr Laurent Mottron is a highly published psychiatrist and and researcher whose numerous publications routinely describe autistic subjects of his studies in terms of their level of functioning:

      … and Global Processing of Music in High-functioning Persons with Autism: Beyond Central Coherence? – all 9 versions »
      L Mottron, I Peretz, E Ménard – The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied …, 2000 –
      … enhanced pitch processing is highly compatible with the exceptional pitch-processing
      abilities exhibited by musical savants with autism (Mottron, Peretz, et al …
      Cited by 86 – Related Articles – Web Search

      Do high functioning persons with autism present superior spatial abilities? – all 5 versions »
      MJ Caron, L Mottron, C Rainville, S Chouinard – Neuropsychologia, 2004 – Elsevier
      … for participants with autism exhibiting atypical gain in cued recall condition
      relatively to free recall condition ([Bennetto et al., 1996 and Mottron et al …
      Cited by 24 – Related Articles – Web Search

      Face perception in high-functioning autistic adults: evidence for superior processing of face parts, … – all 2 versions »
      A Lahaie, L Mottron, M Arguin, C Berthiaume, B … – Neuropsychology, 2006 –
      … Lahaie A, Mottron L, Arguin M, Berthiaume C, Jemel B, Saumier D. Hopital
      Riviere-des-Prairies, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Configural processing in autism was …
      Cited by 14 – Related Articles – Web Search

      Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
      February 15, 2003, Vol. 15, No. 2, Pages 226-235
      Posted Online March 13, 2006.
      Enhanced Pitch Sensitivity in Individuals with Autism: A Signal Detection Analysis
      These findings confirm that pitch processing is enhanced in “high-functioning” autism. Superior performance in pitch discrimination and categorization extends previous findings of enhanced visual performance to the auditory domain. Thus, and as predicted by the enhanced perceptual functioning model for peaks of ability in autism (Mottron & Burack, 2001), autistic individuals outperform typically developing population in a variety of low-level perceptual tasks.

      As a matter of simple observation and common sense some autistic persons are very low functioning, with limited understanding of language, unaware of the dangers of daily life and in some cases prone to self injury.
      My son is low functioning. He must be attended and supervised 24/7. There are in fact many autistic children who require intervention by teams of professionals because of serious inabilities to function. And there are many autistic youths and adults living in residential care facilities because of their inability to function in the real world.

      To refer to low functioning vs high functioning autism distinctions as myths makes no sense.

    • Ms. Clark

      The above is partly a list of autism myths. It’s a little different than the list I posted to wrongplanet a couple of months ago.

    • Cliff

      I’m not sure what they exactly prove, Harold, because the studies are assuming the contested statement, not contesting the statement. I can say that x people can see clearly, show a group of people that can see clearly that I call x see clearly, but it doesn’t do anything to validate the correct value of x as opposed to y.

      I’d look at the varying abilities of certain individuals, and at those individuals who have both been “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” as to see the fluctuating and definitionally-flawed nature of “function” as defining a person.

      Of course, to be honest, I think that our lack of autism knowledge is really far more related to a lack of more general knowledge about people, so I’m not optimistic that the myths are going to be debunked right away. But I do hope that some individuals really do take the time to examine and to look through some of the constructions of autism and see them as just baseless constructions. I guess I work toward that, but I’m pretty bad at it.


    • Michelle Dawson

      The terms “high-” and “low-functioning” are a convenient shorthand currently used in autism research to denote whether autistic and nonautistic participants have a snapshot IQ or developmental level, measured on a specific instrument, in the range of mental retardation.

      These terms do not say anything about the past or future of individual autistics or nonautistics, or about their abilities or accomplishments in numerous areas, or about their performance in other tests that are used to measure level of functioning.

      Individuals who score in the range of mental retardation on tests of intelligence or developmental level, and who Mr Doherty would classify as “low-functioning,” have created their own network of organizations (People First).

      Individuals who Mr Doherty would classify as “low-functioning” have been in charge of major community living organizations and have been commissioners on human rights commissions in Canada.

      Individuals who Mr Doherty would classify as “low-functioning” have gone to court and argued that they are human beings with human rights which cannot be taken away by presumably “high-functioning” individuals like Mr Doherty who regard them as inferior, disordered and defective.

      A recent court decision involving People First noted that parents and other caregivers, regardless of their good intentions, cannot take away the rights of developmentally disabled people. This case involved parents and others who are sure that developmentally disabled people belong in institutions, not in society. The victory over these parents was won by people Mr Doherty would classify as “low-functioniong.”

    • Harold L Doherty

      Ms Dawson is making up facts in her comment when she says “Individuals who Mr Doherty would classify as “low-functioning” have gone to court and argued that they are human beings with human rights which cannot be taken away by presumably “high-functioning” individuals like Mr Doherty who regard them as inferior, disordered and defective. ”

      I have never made such statements. My son is low functioning and I do not regard him as inferior or defective. He is diagnosed with a disorder – Autism Disorder. He received that diagnosis, unlike Ms Dawson, at an early age – 2, because of his obvious deficits for which we sought medical advice as his parents.

      The only people I know of in Canada who try to take away the human rights of autistic persons are people like Ms Dawson who has spent a considerable part of her energies fighting against government funding of ABA treatment and eduction interventions for autistic children for whom ABA is the most proven effective intervention whether viewed as a health or an education intervention. Our Autism Society of New Brunswick included on its board for years a gentleman with Aspergers who also addressed the Canadian Senate and who is supportive of our efforts to help our children. Ms. Dawson’s views do not represent the views of all high functioning autistic persons or persons with Aspergers.

      As for her comments about Low Functioning references in Dr Mottron’s numerous articles studying High Functioning Autistic persons the articles and Dr. Mottron’s words speak for themselves. Calling them terms of convenience is actually an admission that Dr. Mottron in his dozens of autism studies recognized the importance of distinguishing between individuals like Ms Dawson who was able to work within Canada Post’s mail delivery system, speak to the Supreme Court of Canada and the Canadian Senate and the media and people like my 12 year old son who is learning to read at a grade 1 level and has limited understanding of real world dangers like automobile traffic.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Harold L. Doherty wrote:

      “It is also a matter of simple observation and common sense”:

      I am glad you used the impersonal pronoun “it” and have thereby left the possible meanings of this statement open. “Observation” and “common sense” are in the eye of whoever is observing and applying their powers of reason and analysis. I suspect you’ll have an objection to this: Observation is in the eye of the beholder, if I may repeat myself.

      Charlie can’t really read (despite about 7 years of trying) but, thanks to 12 miles bike rides on city streets and a program to teach him to wait on the curb, he is slowly learning to handle traffic (not that I’d ever let him cross a street on his own. The notion that “autistic kids have no sense of danger” is yet another myth to be addressed; good teaching goes a long way—-kids can be taught to wait at the curb. I understand Harold L. Doherty’s regular citation of this concern, as he has noted that he has had a personal experience of a child running into traffic (I may have the details wrong, but I think that is the concern).

      Ms. Clark, thanks for that list at Trusera.

    • Michelle Dawson

      Hi Mr Doherty,

      I’ve never spoken to the Supreme Court of Canada, though I did argue in writing and through my lawyer. I argued that autistics who have not received Lovaas-type ABA starting very early in life are not less-then-human write-offs.

      This was in opposition to both sides. Both sides in Auton excluded and wrote off autistics, expediently to make their case. My position in Auton is fully available online and has been for many years now.

      In the Senate, I’ve suggested (as I did in Auton) that autistics are human beings with human rights, and that we deserve recognized standards of science and ethics. My testimony in the Senate is available online via various sources.

      Your full support for the Auton trial decision (and apparently Jason Oldford, the autistic you mention, also fully supports this decision) shows your agreement that not only are most autistics in Canada sick, inferior (less than human) and defective, we are doomed. By “most autistics in Canada” I mean those of us who have not received intensive ABA-based interventions starting very early in life.

      In the autism literature, the supposedly (if I am reading you right) iron-clad threshold dividing levels of functioning into “high” and “low” varies by more than 2 standard deviations.

      In addition, many researchers, from Ami Klin to Helen Tager-Flusberg to Sir Michael Rutter, have reported dramatic discrepancies between measured levels of functioning in autistics, depending on what test is used. The Yale group’s data are particularly striking.

      Also, autistics’ scores on various instruments used to assign a functioning level change over time, particularly under age 6. See Eaves and Ho (2004), where, e.g., an autistic child in an ABA program lost 27 IQ points over 2 years.

      So if you are going to propose an iron-clad division between two kinds of autistics based on level of functioning, you need to specify which threshold on which instrument at which age (the literature does not provide this, so it is up to you). And you need to justify discarding all other results.

      Autistics, like nonautistics, have a wide variety of outcomes. I’ve written elsewhere, “I don’t dispute that many autistics are denied the assistance and opportunities (and acceptance, accommodation, and respect) which would allow them to pursue areas (skills, abilities) in which they can succeed as autistic people.”

      As I wrote above, individuals you classify as “low-functioning” have very actively defended their human rights, including by opposing some parents demanding certain kinds of services and interventions. E.g., see the role of People First in the Eve case (which went to the Supreme Court of Canada).

    • Michelle Dawson

      Typo: should be “less-than-human,” in the first paragraph in my message above. Sorry.

    • Harold L Doherty

      Ms Dawson stated:

      “Your full support for the Auton trial decision (and apparently Jason Oldford, the autistic you mention, also fully supports this decision) shows your agreement that not only are most autistics in Canada sick, inferior (less than human) and defective, we are doomed. By “most autistics in Canada” I mean those of us who have not received intensive ABA-based interventions starting very early in life. ”

      Once again Ms Dawson your rhetoric is unsupported by any references or any reaonable interpretation of any statement I have ever made in relation to autism. If you want to know my views on ABA check the reference to it in the MADSEC report 1999-2000 and the October 29, 2007 report of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Managing where the AAP concluded that:

      “The effectiveness of ABA-based intervention in
      ASDs has been well documented through 5 decades of research by using single-subject methodology21,25,27,28 and in controlled studies of comprehensive early intensive
      behavioral intervention programs in university and
      community settings.29–40 Children who receive early intensive behavioral treatment have been shown to make substantial, sustained gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behavior as well as some measures of social behavior, and their outcomes have been significantly better than those of children in control groups.31–40″

      I take issue with your mis-characterizations of ABA and its effectiveness at helping autistic children make real gains as set out in the major reviews of the research literature over the past 20 years. Those reviews as you know, in addition to the MADSEC and AAP reviews referenced above, also include the Office of the US Surgeon General and state agencies in New York and California. As you know also the expert hired by the BC government in the Auton hearing, Dr. Frank Gresham, although hired to support the BC Government decision to refuse funding for ABA for autistic children, actually testified that ABA was the treatment of choice for autism.

      As for Jason Oldford, he has an Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis. I have known Jason since he, on his own initiative, approached a public autism meeting on March 17 2001 in Fredericton NB and identified himself to everyone present. Although you have routinely claimed that persons with Autism have been excluded from Autism Societies the fact is that Jason was warmly received by our Autism Society. When he shared his perspectives and experiences with us tears flowed on peoples’ cheeks. Jason brought many organizational skills and knowledge to our organization where he served as a Director for several years. Jason attend, on his intiative, rallys at which we advocated for ABA intervention for our children and, as I said, assisted us with his considerable organizational skills and knowledge. Jason also attempted to address a self identified deficit with respect to public speaking by becoming a regular contributor at Toastmaster’s functions at which he distinguished himself. I hold Jason in high regard and respect as do all members of our organization who have had the privilege of meeting Jason and working with him.

      I make no comments and draw no inferences about whether you personally would have benefited from ABA intervention. But I have never, EVER, at ANY time written off autistic persons. I have contributed my legal services free of charge to youths and adults with Aspergers and high functioning autism who have difficulty with the education and legal systems because of their conditions and the failure of many authorities to understand that, despite their capacity for oral communication, they still have serious challenges. I have also advocated for governement funded intervention by properly trained service providers in NB at the pre-school years and in the school system as well as varied learning arrangements according to the abilities and challenges of the individual autistic student. I also was active in successfully opposing a government decision to close a pediatric tertiary care facility for autistic children in Fredericton. I am currently involved in attempting to improve public residential care for autistic youths and adults in NB and have publicly advocated against use of police TASERS and other force on persons with autism and other disorders. My public record in NB in this regard is well known. You do only yourself a disserve with your baseless allegations that I write off autistic persons of any level of ability.

      I take issue with the attempts by autistic persons who are as intelligent and understanding of the world, and can communicate as well as you, when you trivialize and obscure the very serious challenges of lower functioning autistic persons like my son. I did speak to you briefly when you called me at my law office (twice) seeking access to an ASNB legal opinion several years ago. You had no difficulty communicating orally with me concerning what was a legal matter. I only wish that my son could understand the world and communicate to even 10% of your capacity.

    • Harold L Doherty

      Ms Chew

      We can digress endlessly into debates about objectivity being “in the eye of the beholder”. I have mentioned my personal experience with my son crossing a busy street unattended. I have also commented about his self injury and I have posted photos of his hand after biting himself. If you check my blog site there is also mention of him putting his fist through windows and mirrors. The news regularly features similar stories. From Scotland recently is a story and pictures of an autistic child Samantha who is sent home from school for behavioral reasons and who inflicts serious harm to her hands and head. I have commented several times on news reports of incidents of autistic youths wandering into traffic sometimes with a fortunate outcome as in my son’s case .. sometimes not.

      Apart from these specific instances and there are many others it is simply a fact that there are people with autism living in the care of others because they lack the ability to FUNCTION independently. Then we have persons like Ms Dawson with her many wonderful accomplishments. Or Jason Oldford who functions very well in the work world and who is capable of helping others. It is absurd not to distinguish between autistic persons with such differing abilities to FUNCTION in the real world.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      @Harold L. Doherty,

      I hope your son’s teachers might start a program about teaching traffic safety, how to cross the street, and so forth if they have not already done so.

      My son’s done everything you describe (not the self-biting, but other forms of SIB) and also what was described in that article about Samantha. ABA and careful teaching, and constant efforts to understand why he does what he does, have gotten these behaviors under control: It is necessary to emphasize the dangers that many autistic children face, but it is also necessary to emphasize how much can be done and what can be taught. People feel hopeless but it’s necessary to emphasize how much everyone can learn.

      As for “functioning independently,” this is not quite the black and white issue that you tend to convey it as—there’s quite a spectrum of this to, for non-autistic and autistic persons, including numerous of my own relatives. Best wishes and thank you.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      @Michelle Dawson,

      You wrote “Autistics, like nonautistics, have a wide variety of outcomes”—-yes—we have known plenty of persons, off and on the spectrum, who have struggled to function and manage in all sorts of ways.

    • Kev2

      Instead of myths, let’s focus on the reality: that people with autism are, simply, normal, acceptable people. They’re not the future inasmuch as they have extra-human capability, nor are they beings from another planet who will cause magical things to happen. If you have those ideas, and I am guilty of harboring them, remind yourself that those ideas are not sustainable. I would venture to say that most people with autism simply want to, even enjoy, being themselves in a sustainable environment.

      I’m not a psychologist, but in my personal opinion, functioning labels serve no purpose unless there are real and distinct differences between diagnoses, as there are between those with Asperger’s and those with autism in the classical sense.

    • Kev2

      At least that’s what I would tell CNN. ;)

    • Kev2

      Delete “even enjoy.” It should read, “want to be happy and in a sustainable environment.”

    • Kev2

      Good Lord I’m a perfectionist. Can you tell I need to work on the “enjoy” part?

    • Michelle Dawson

      Hi Mr Doherty,

      You have fully supported the Auton and Wynberg trial decisions.

      Both those decisions write off autistics who have not received intensive ABA-based autism interventions starting early in life.

      You have also strongly opposed my position in Auton. My position in Auton is in opposition to how both sides wrote off most autistics in Canada (autistics who have not received intensive ABA starting early in life).

      Also, you have strongly opposed my Senate testimony, where again I have objected to autsitics being written off. There, as I mentioned above, I argued that autistics are human beings with human rights, and that we deserve recognized standards of science and ethics (this also figured in my argument in Auton).

      As with any other group, autistics are very unlikely to have good outcomes so long as we are denied basic human rights and recognized standards of science and ethics.

      Here’s a quote from a recent peer-reviewed paper:

      “There have been a number of different reviews of evidence-based practices of treatments for young children with autism. Reviews which have critically evaluated the empirical evidence have not found any treatments that can be considered evidence-based.” (Reichow et al., in press)

      If you find any factual errors in my reporting of the behaviour analytic literature in my formal and informal writing, please point them out. I always appreciate knowing where I’ve made factual errors. Your repetition of the usual boilerplate does not add to the discussion.

      I did not phone your law office. I phoned a number for ASNB. I asked the person who answered the phone for information relevant to my extreme difficulties (which at various times has involved being in danger). You required me to phone back then refused to assist an autistic honestly asking for important information.

      More recently, you have publicly taken the position that autistics must not be protected by the laws which ensure that nonautistics have safe workplaces.

      I was enormously popular with autism societies so long as I did not in any way question the information they gave me and obediently did as they asked. I could be and was used as a dire warning as to what terrible fate would befall autistic children if they were not in ABA programs starting very early in life.

      Now that I have questioned, of necessity (if I had not questioned this, I would be locked up somewhere), the information autism advocates provide, I am considered by autism advocates to be totally ignorant of the “autism reality” autism advocates used to consider me an expert on.

      I don’t think the work of People First (or for that matter, the work of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society) has trivialized developmental disabilities. It has done the opposite–it is taking developmental disabilities seriously, and it is the leadership of these groups, which have made society a much better place for developmentally disabled people, that I look up to.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD


      Make sure you write to CNN!

    • Emily

      My son scores as mentally retarded in some things and at high high percentiles in others. Is he “high functioning” or “low functioning”? I’ll be up all night worrying about it.

      And he functions independently in some ways but cannot remember simple “independent functions” like whether or not his underpants go on first or looking when he crosses the street or how to start swinging on a swing on the playground. His executive processing skills are almost nonexistent. Is he high functioning or low functioning? What is his label? Both? Neither?

      He has many many characterstics that they ask about on standard autism scales, but he also has many characteristics that we find on Asperger’s scales. Does he have autism or Asperger’s? Both? Neither?

      Interestingly enough, based on DSM-III criteria, he has autism.

    • Cliff

      See, I’m inclined to think that there isn’t a “difference” per se in the people who are Asperger’s or classical autism. There are examples you can use, myself included, to this point (since I would be considered a consistent person (and, indeed, have done things that Mr. Doherty is describing), but could easily have qualified for either, depending on knowledge of my past).

      The distinction is really superficial, but works well enough in superficialities. I just don’t like it when such a thing, with a built-in moral component, is ascribed to a person as an ultimate value.


    • Emily

      Cliff, I’m inclined to think the same. I’m also inclined to be highly skeptical of most things in the DSM-IV-TR, but that’s just me. My mother has suggested that TH has *both* Asperger’s and autism, as though they were two different disorders with potentially differing etiologies. It’s a suggestion I’ve found intriguing, but that’s about it.

    • dkmnow

      MYTH: “Autistic people don’t ‘attach’ emotionally to others.”

      That one is especially popular among old-school mental health professionals, and as unsupportable assumptions go, that myth does a great deal of emotional harm to autistics — as it would to anyone, leaving them with feelings of betrayal and abandonment.

      Ultimately, it often adds up to a classic “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

    • dkmnow

      Harold, I think you forgot to mention that what we really want is for your son to be a mental vegetable and rot in an institution.

      As to your usage of “objective,” and related terms, Inigo Montoya has a message for you: “You keep-a using that word … I do not think it means what you think it means.”

      I’ve bookmarked this discussion. When I’m ready to take it more seriously, I’ll come back and use your comments above as practice material for more self-training in the deconstruction of fallacious rhetoric.

      In the mean time, thanks for the laughs.