Autism 101

Autism Myths and Facts

This information is offered for informational purposes only. It is not meant to be used for diagnosis, nor is it intended to be medical advice.

MYTH:Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders do not care about others.

FACT: Children and adults with an ASD often care deeply but lack the ability to spontaneously develop empathic and socially connected typical behavior.

MYTH: Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders prefer to be alone.

FACT: Children and adults with an ASD often want to socially interact but lack the ability to spontaneously develop effective social interaction skills.

MYTH: Children and adults with an ASD cannot learn social skills.

FACT: Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders can learn social skills if they receive individualized, specialized instruction and training. Social skills may not develop simply as the result of daily life experiences.

MYTH: Autism spectrum disorders are caused by poor parenting or parental behavior.

FACT: Parents do not and cannot cause autism spectrum disorders. Although the multiple causes of all autism spectrum disorders are not known, it IS known that parental behavior before, during and after pregnancy does not cause autism spectrum disorders to develop.

MYTH: Autism spectrum disorders are not increasing in incidence. They are just being better diagnosed, and diagnosed earlier so the numbers are increasing.

FACT: Autism spectrum disorders are increasing across the globe at an alarming rate. Some states are considered to be in an autism epidemic. Many states experienced a 500-1000% increase in the past few years. No one knows the cause or causes for the increase. Better and earlier diagnosis can only account for a fraction of the current increases in numbers.

MYTH: ASD is a behavioral/emotional/mental health disorder.

FACT: Autism related disorders are developmental disabilities and neuro-biological disorders. These disorders manifest in early childhood (usually before the age of three or four) and are likely to last the lifetime of the person.

MYTH: People with autism spectrum disorders cannot have successful lives as contributing members of society.

FACT: Many people with autism spectrum disorders are being successful living and working and are contributing to the well being of others in their communities. This is most likely to happen when appropriate services are delivered during the child's free, appropriate, public education years.

MYTH: Autism spectrum disorders get worse as children get older.

FACT: Autism spectrum disorders are not degenerative. Children and adults with autism should continuously improve.* They are most likely to improve with specialized, individualized services and opportunities for supported inclusion. If they are not improving, make changes in service delivery.

MYTH: Autism spectrum disorders do not run in families.

FACT: More families are experiencing multiple members with an ASD than ever before. In some families, parents with an ASD were misdiagnosed or never diagnosed. In some families, many or all siblings are in the autism spectrum. Most often, one child with autism is born into families who do not have other family members with an autism spectrum disorder.

MYTH: All people with an autism spectrum disorder have "savant skills", like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man".

FACT: Most people with autism spectrum disorders do not have any special savant skills. Some have "splinter skills", areas of high performance that are not consistent with other skill levels.

MYTH: It is better to "wait and see" if a child does better rather than refer the child for a diagnostic assessment.

FACT: The earlier autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed and treated, the better. Outcomes for children's lives are significantly improved with early diagnosis and treatment. When in doubt, refer, do not wait.

MYTH: Autism spectrum disorders are something to be hidden. Other students should not know about the presence of an ASD in a classmate. If you do not tell the other children, they will not know that something is "wrong" with the student with an ASD.

FACT: Students need to know when their classmates have a developmental disability that is likely to effect interactions and learning. Students as young as five years old are able to identify differences in their peers. When students are not given appropriate information, they are likely to draw the wrong conclusions, based on their very limited experiences. Confidentiality rules must be taken into consideration and parental approval sought to teach peers how to understand and interact successfully with children with ASD.

MYTH: Certain intensive, behavioral based programs "cure" autism spectrum disorders if they are delivered at the right age and intensity.

FACT: There is no cure for autism spectrum disorders. Early behavior-based interventions have positive effects on some children with autism and less note-worthy effects on other children. Early services need to be based on individual children's needs and learning styles, not based on programs being sold as "cures" for every child with ASD. Services for adults with the features of autism need to be carefully individualized to the adult.

MYTH: Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders are very similar to one another.

FACT: Although all children and adults with autism spectrum disorders have three diagnostic features in common, each child with an ASD is a unique individual. People with autism spectrum disorders differ as much from one another as do all people.

MYTH: Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders do not interact very much. They do not have good eye contact. They do not speak well. They are not very bright.

<pFACT: Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders may speak and/or interact with others. They may have good eye contact. They may be verbal or non-verbal. They may be very bright, of average intelligence or have cognitive deficits.

MYTH: The best place to educate a child or adult with an autism spectrum disorder is in a separate program designed for children or adults with autism.

FACT: Educational and adult services delivered to a people with ASD must be specifically designed for each person. Many people with ASD do the best when their services are individualized to them, not designed to be the same for a whole group. Remember that the "I" in IEP or IHP stands for "individualized." (The outcome for education for all children is to be able to belong to the community and contribute. These goals are often best met when the child with an ASD is educated in a community school with access to the typical children who will become the community of the future.)

MYTH: If you have an autism disorder, you will not have any other disorder.

FACT: Autism Spectrum Disorders can co-occur with any other disorders. It is common to find a person with ASD who also has any of the following: Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, cognitive impairments, deafness, blindness, and medical or seizure disorders.

MYTH: It is very hard to know if a person with other disabilities has an autism spectrum disorder.

FACT: Autism is identified by looking at the behavior of the individual. If the individual displays characteristics of autism, across settings they may qualify for special education services, or may receive a medical diagnosis of autism. If you have concerns about autism please contact your school district and ask for an assessment should be completed.
Possible features of autism (summarized) include:

  • Qualitative differences in reciprocal social interaction (inability to easily create and sustain relationships)
  • Qualitative differences in BOTH verbal and non-verbal communication (not using and responding to communication signals in a typical way)
  • Restricted, repetitive and stereotypic patterns of interests, behavior and activities.
  • Onset of these features early in life usually by age 4.
Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act website

Autism shall mean a developmental disability which significantly affects verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before the age of three, that adversely affects educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not include children with characteristics of the disability category "behavioral disorder."

Nebraska Department of Education Title 92, Nebraska Administrative Code, Chapter 51  pdf

ASD is a lifelong neurodevelopment disability recognized by the manifestation of behavioral characteristics across multiple areas of functioning.

Characteristics are observed, to varying degrees, in social relatedness, communication, pattern and range of interests, and sensory responsiveness. These characteristics are generally evident during the child's early years.

In Nebraska Rule 51, the definition of ASD is sufficiently broad to include those children exhibiting a range of characteristics related to ASD.

As noted previously, determining eligibility for special education under the autism disability category requires that the criteria established in the Nebraska Department of Education's Rule 51 are met. However a medical diagnosis of autism spectrum is based upon criteria established in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). DSM-5 includes a new system of determining severity see chart below. For more information regarding the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria please visit here

History of Autism

Leo Kanner, 1896-1981

In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner published a paper describing a group of I I children who were similar to each other, but quite different from any other group of children diagnosed with childhood disorders. Kanner's description of these children included their inability to develop relationships with people, delay or absence of speech, and, in many cases, compulsiveness in their need for sameness and routine. He also noted some repetitive or stereotyped behaviors and an overall lack of imaginative play. Kanner described the children in his report as having a generally normal physical appearance, but recorded a few abnormalities evident during infancy, including unresponsiveness when held. The criteria used in diagnosing and verifying autism today are remarkably similar to those first described by Dr. Kanner. Because this population of individuals was very isolated and aloof, Kanner used the term "autism" to describe them; autism means "self."

Kanner theorized that some of the characteristics of autism were manifested from birth or early infancy and, thus, labeled the disability "early infantile autism". As early as 1911, Eugene Bleuler had used the term "autism" to describe a symptom of schizophrenia, because of the social relatedness deficit that is characteristic of schizophrenia. (Bleuler's study as cited in Rutter, 1979). Unfortunately, the association between autism and schizophrenia remained for many years.

After Kanner's first report, the search for a cause stimulated the development of many theories, most of which were later discarded. While Kanner held that the disorder was present at birth, he also thought the disorder could be improved or worsened by environmental influences. As late as 1967, Bruno Bettleheim proposed that parents' extremely negative feelings directed at the infant and lack of nurturance and love caused the child to retreat into his/her own world. (Bettleheim's study as cited in Cantwell, Baker, & Rutter, 1979). Although this hypothesis has since been disproved by research, many parents experienced unnecessary guilt and anguish for many years as a result of this theory.

What are ASD's?

Autism Spectrum Disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that can affect the way individuals:

  • understand and use language to interact and communicate with people
  • understand and relate in typical ways to people, events, and objects in the environment
  • understand and respond appropriately to sensory stimuli--pain, hearing, taste, etc.
  • learn and think similar to typically developing children

ASD's are "Spectrum Disorders". Which means that people with an ASD will be affected in different ways ranging from very mild to severe. Individuals with ASD's share some similiar symptoms and characteristics such as difficulty with social interactions. There are however differences in when symptoms start, how severe they are and the exact nature of the symptoms. (CDC, 2014)

Autism exists on a continuum from mild to severe. Learning, responding, and thinking differences result in confusion, frustration, and anxiety expressed in withdrawal, repetitive behaviors, and, sometimes, in aggression or self-injury.

Autism can co-occur with other disabilities.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, All children with ASD demonstrate deficits in:

  • Social Interaction
  • Verbal and Nonverbal Comunication
  • Repetitive Behaviors or Interests

State Definition: Rule 51 [ download ]

To qualify for special education services in the category of autism the child must have a developmental disability which significantly affects verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction, is generally evident before age three, and that affect the child's educational performance.

Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or changes in daily routines, and unusual response to sensory experiences.

Autism does not apply if a child's educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has a behavior disorder as defined in 92 NAC 51-006.04C. A child who manifests the characteristics of autism after age three could be identified as having autism if the other criteria in 92 NAC 51-006.04B1 are met.

Autism Society of America. (1999). Shaping our Future: Educating Children with Autism, pp.8-9.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014) What is the Prevalence of ASDs? Retrieved 09/22/14 from http://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/autism/data.html

National Research Council (2001). Educating Children with Autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. Catherine Lord and James P. McGee, eds. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Nebraska Department of Education. (May, 2010). Nebraska Administrative Code (92 NAC 51, Title 92) (Rev. ed.).

Special Education Advisory Council Ad Hoc Committee on Autism Spectrum Disorders. (May 2008). Verification Guidelines for Children with Disabilities. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska Department of Education.