Autism and certain autistic individuals have been in the news a lot in recent days, with the most notorious example being the young killer, Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people in a hate fueled rampage in California last week. The revelation that this young man had been diagnosed with mild Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of Autism, has led to many blaming his diagnosis for his abhorrent actions. This has subsequently contributed to a particular myth about the condition which claims sufferers are more predisposed to become killers. There are many myths surrounding Autism, most of them negative and completely unfounded, but this one is particularly offensive, worrying, damaging – pick a negative connotation, any negative connotation.
However, some of the most common myths about the condition are actually a contradiction in themselves. For instance, the idea that autistic people are all highly intelligent and are particularly good at subjects such as math, music and art is offset by the belief that they are incapable of learning new skills. In actuality neither is true. Autistic people have a tendency to focus very specifically on one subject or area of interest which can lead to greater than average ability in that field. Then of course there are some with exceptional skills above and beyond the majority (just like the rest of the population), however, they are perfectly capable of learning new things and there is little to suggest that Autism predisposes people to an aptitude in specific subjects.
One of the other major misconceptions associated with autistic people is that they prefer their own company, do not need or want friends and are uneasy in any social situation. While many (not all) people with Autism do have trouble with things like eye contact, personal space and social protocol, it does not mean that they do not like companionship or want to feel needed and loved. In fact, the idea that autistic children do not want friends was suitably refuted in a video of a young autistic boy addressing his classmates during a gym class which went viral. Jake tells a room full of his peers that he tries to be their friend but they see him as a target and not as a person. He stammers throughout the recording but his message is poignant, brave and heart-breaking. As the camera sweeps the room it shows children laughing as Jake tells them that they always leave him out and never listen to anything he has to say. There cannot be a more convincing picture of how much autistic people crave friendship and acceptance just as much as anyone else than a child having the courage to confront his bullies on camera.
However, it is not just unfounded myths concerning the nature of the condition which proliferate in society. The incessant scaremongering which has arisen as a result of misinformation regarding Autism has meant that there is a constant circulation of myths about potential causes. Some of the more notorious links recently have been made by certain individuals in the public eye, for instance singer Toni Braxton and reality star Kristin Cavallari. In what has to be one of the most insensitive confessions made public, Braxton claimed God had given her second son Autism as punishment for aborting her first child. Irrespective of how this might affect her son, the association between an autistic condition and punishment is indicative of the public perception of difference as hardship. The former star of The Hills, Cavallari, made headlines when she stated she would not be vaccinating her two young sons for fear of them becoming autistic. Despite the fact that scientific evidence exists to prove that there is no tangible link between vaccines and Autism, this myth is one of the most widely spread in society and does untold damage to the concept of “herd immunity.” Some of the more ridiculous claims have been made recently by the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) when they attempted to illustrate a connection between dairy products and Autism. They used a few personal testimonials to claim that cutting out dairy could improve symptoms of the syndrome in children. With absolutely no scientific proof, it was merely a very transparent effort to tap into the public fear and the social stigma surrounding the disorder and harness it for their own dubious purposes.
Perhaps the most worrying trend in the unfounded myths surrounding Autism is the one linking autistic people with killers and murderers as it has itself spawned more violence in connection with the condition. The darker taint associated with having what many view as a “defect” has led to a few rare instances of parents harming or killing their autistic children. In 2013 a mother named Marilyn Edge murdered her teenage autistic son and ten year old daughter before attempting suicide. The murder of Alex Spourdalakis was particularly brutal as his mother and godmother failed to kill him with sleeping pills and so resorted to stabbing him to death. Whether or not the motivations behind these horrendous incidents were due to a lack of support or understanding, they illustrate a disturbing attitude towards people and particularly children on the Autism spectrum. It is not, and should never be given as an excuse for committing violent acts against people, whether it is an autistic person committing the crime whose actions are explained through their condition or someone unable to cope with caring for an autistic person.
The basis of the fear surrounding Autism has to do with “difference.” In a society which demands conformity and punishes any deviations from the status quo, the idea of having a child who cannot or will not fit in with these rigid parameters is often a source of terror for parents. Yet in the torrent of miscommunication, misinformation and prejudice which surrounds the condition, people so often refuse to see the positives which Autism can bring. Any child will face issues in life and autistic children are no different in that respect, the difficulties they have to deal with might just be of a slightly variable nature. However their perspective on life and society can often provide a refreshing counter point to the conventional view. “Difference” is not synonymous with “defective” and by constantly seeing common autistic traits as problems which need to be fixed is to grossly over simplify the situation and miss out on the potential advantages they might provide in certain circumstances. Autistic people often have extremely good memories and are statistically less likely to misremember things; both of these traits lend themselves to areas like scientific research. They tend to have trouble with verbal tasks or situations but can be incredibly receptive and able with visual tasks. Also their general lack of understanding or appreciation of dishonesty, which many view as an inability to function within society, should really be viewed as the ideal and most preferred way to conduct oneself.
In the end it is all about perspective and attitude. Given the rise in mental health problems and a greater appreciation of behavior disorders, why is it that Autism still attracts such a social stigma? It might be classed as a disorder but it is a broad spectrum scale and whether people have mild or extreme versions of the condition, they are all still people with feelings, needs, abilities and things to offer and should be appreciated as such. No child should ever be made to feel they are a burden or a “punishment” for their parents and myths which perpetuate the most negative ideas about the condition will always make autistic children feel this way, often in spite of how supportive their parents are. Putting to rest these ignorant myths which keep cropping up about Autism is therefore important not only for those personally affected by the syndrome but also for everyone else in society who values individuality, diversity and tolerance.
Opinion by Rhona Scullion