Fact File: Autism - Moving away from the misconceptions

Fact File: Autism - Moving away from the misconceptions
03 April 2017
Autism Spectrum Disorders have been well-covered in the media over recent years, but not necessarily for all the right reasons.

Unfortunately, many of the myths surrounding Autism have taken root in society, blurring the lines between fact and fiction when it comes to this range of challenging conditions.

What is Autism?
Autism South Africa include a useful, and insightful definition for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) on their website:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. ASD is a developmental disability, and people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely impaired. Some people with ASD need high support (a lot of help and intensive intervention) while others need low support (less help and less intensive intervention). Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterised, in varying degrees, by:

  • difficulties in social interaction;
  • verbal and nonverbal communication;
  • repetitive behaviours and
  • differences in sensory perception.

How is ASD Diagnosed?
Because ASD covers a range of conditions, and people are most often affected in different ways, there is no one single test that can be used to diagnose ASD. Moreover, developmental disabilities are, most often, related to a person’s biological makeup, rather than their psychological wellbeing or mental state. An ASD diagnosis usually entails a range of developmental screenings and evaluations and, most importantly, the input of specialists – your family GP cannot diagnose an Autism Spectrum Disorder on their own, although they will be your first port of call if you are concerned.  Most often, ASD becomes noticeable or is diagnosed by the time your child turns three years of age.

Myths and Misconceptions
Unfortunately, many misconceptions have surrounded people who fall ‘on the spectrum’. We’d like to bust four of those myths, right away:

Fact:  Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism – this myth is probably the most durable and damaging of them all, because it’s led to parents refusing to vaccinate their children.  A 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield linked the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, and this was popularised as a point of view, by a few celebrities. Dr Wakefield retracted his report, lost his medical licence to practice and his job. Moreover, many neurologists, paediatricians and scientists absolutely refuted these findings and still do, to this day.

Fact: Parenting Styles Are Not to Blame for Autism – this theory was put forward during the 1950s, and called the ‘refrigerator mother theory’. Leo Kanner claimed that parents who were not warm or engaging with their children, caused their children to have Autism. This theory particularly blamed mothers, but was quickly disproven, with the scientist later moving on to studying brain mechanisms instead.

Fact: Autism is a Neurological Disorder, not a Mental Disorder – Similarly, Autism is not caused by a mental illness, or psychological trauma. Scientific studies have shown that people on the ASD spectrum have different-to-normal neurotransmitter levels and brain activity.

Fact: Autism has not suddenly become more prevalent – It is true that more people are being diagnosed with ASD nowadays, but that’s because diagnostic tools and tests have improved over time, enabling doctors and scientists to more easily diagnose ASD. That does not mean it did not exist before – it simply means it was misunderstood for a long time.

Extra Resources
If you are concerned about your child’s development, your first port of call should be your family doctor. If you’d like to learn more about ASD, we’d recommend the following resources:

LifeDoc Can Help
LifeDoc™ is here to help. Now available for download as an Android app (with iOS coming soon!), LifeDoc™ helps you take charge of your personal health information, while making it easier to keep track of appointments, schedule those important check-ups and securely store your personal medical history. You can use LifeDoc™ to keep track of your child’s developmental milestones, health information and other important notes, easily sharing them with your medical practitioner at your next appointment. Register here or like the LifeDoc™ Facebook page for regular updates. You can also stay on track with LifeDoc™ developments on Twitter.