Viren D’Sa, MD chief of pediatrics at Memorial and director of the New England Pediatric Institute of Neurodevelopment gives the facts on common myths.
1. MYTH: There is an autism epidemic going on.
TRUTH: There is no doubt the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has risen over the past 10 years. However, characterizing it as an epidemic is inaccurate and gives the impression of a clear cause for the increasing numbers. While a cause for the occurrence of autism is yet to be identified, we are seeing greater awareness of the condition. This has led to children being evaluated in larger numbers due to concerns raised by various caregivers and educators who spend a significant amount of time with them.
When interpreting some of the more recent reports of the prevalence of autism, one must consider the methods used in arriving at these numbers. For example, extracting numbers from special education records of school departments can misrepresent the true numbers of children diagnosed with the disorder. It doesn’t take away from the fact that there is increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorder, resulting in more children being evaluated, collectively resulting in higher numbers of children being diagnosed.
2. MYTH: Childhood vaccines can cause autism.
TRUTH: The discussion about the role of vaccines in autism began with the introduction of concerns related to the presence of mercury as a preservative in the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Since then, while the use of mercury as a preservative has been discontinued in vaccines, the number of children being diagnosed with the disorder continues to be significant. The components of various vaccines have also been looked at in population studies both in the United States and other developed countries. A few years ago, the researchers who associated vaccines and autism retracted their claims after concerns were raised about their study, including its funding and the methods by which information was obtained. While numerous studies have not revealed a cause-and-effect relationship between vaccines and autism, studies continue to look for causes. At this time, among the factors possibly associated with the development of autism, genetics continue to be a leading candidate, though much work is required in pin-pointing this further.
3. MYTH: All autistic children are actually geniuses.
TRUTH: Children with autism spectrum disorders often have skills and talents in a particular area that is out of proportion to their other qualities. While this doesn’t always correlate with the child’s intellectual ability, such tendencies, if seen, can occur in children with higher function (high-functioning autism), but isn’t limited to them alone. These skills give the casual observer the impression of superior cognitive ability and intelligence, but isn’t an accurate representation of their true intellectual ability. Such children may be of superior ability in that particular skill, but in other areas of development – communication, socialization, relationships, etc. – they often continue to have difficulties consistent with their autism.
4. MYTH: Autistic children don’t feel emotions.
TRUTH: Like all children, regardless of their developmental status, children with autism also experience and feel emotions. They experience happiness, sadness, anxiety, apprehension, excitement, etc., and may show it in various ways. Depending on their ability to communicate, they might not always express these emotions like their typically developing peers would and that is what raises concerns about their lack of feeling or emotion. Their reactions can often be disproportionate to the trigger, which should not be confused for a lack of understanding or control of their emotions. On the contrary, children with autism require those around them to understand their cues as well as what makes them tick.