Last Modified: April 8, 2023 | Published: January 27, 2023
MYTH #1: AUTISTIC KIDS NEVER WANT FRIENDS.
Truth: Many autistic kids want friends but have trouble making them.
Why this myth exists
Social skills deficits are required for the diagnosis of autism.
In fact, the most important symptom of autism is a deficit in “social reciprocity.”
Social reciprocity is having sustained back-and-forth interactions and relationships with others. A child is diagnosed with autism when they have difficulty here. Autistic children often have trouble with social cues. Eye contact, conversation skills, and non-verbal communication can be challenging.
Autism has contextual complexity. This term means that certain scenarios and situations can be harder than others. Lots of noise or sensory overload can impact a child’s social skills or social comfort.
Kids with no social issues at all do not have autism.
However, these social issues in autism are often misunderstood. Wanting friends is different than having social challenges, and this is a common misconception.
Social motivation is not social reciprocity.
Parents are often confused by this social skills symptom in autism. As a clinician, I often hear, “but he is so social.” Parents are usually referring here to ‘social motivation,’ which is the interest in making friends.
Some kids with autism may care very much about friendships. The issue they have is with social savvy. They may want to make friends. However, they may struggle because of challenges with communication, social cues, and perspective-taking. These challenges interfere with social relationships.
A caveat here is that some autistic children may not be as interested in making friends as others. That’s okay too. A child may have autism, whether or not they are socially motivated.
MYTH #2: AUTISTIC KIDS ALWAYS PREFER BEING ALONE.
Truth: Some autistic kids like to be alone but most would rather have friends.
Why this myth exists
Some autistic kids prefer to play alone. Some older kids and teens on the Spectrum tend to be a bit more introverted and may become exhausted after socializing for a long time. It may be helpful for parents of autistic kids to provide some downtime to recharge after sustained social interactions. However, there is another important factor that leads to the fact that many kids with autism spend a lot of time alone.
Social failures lead to isolation. Autistic kids are often trying hard to make friends but simply struggle to engage and connect with peers. They may accidentally offend other kids or get on their nerves. Autistic children are more often bullied and mistreated by others. As a result, autistic kids often feel alone and left out of social relationships. They may be found wandering the playground alone or hanging out in the nurse’s office to avoid the cafeteria or the playground. As a clinician, I remember one parent saying, “He seems locked in a kingdom of isolation.”
Social interactions are increasingly complex. Socially motivated autistic kids tend to have certain traits that make interactions difficult. For example, when an autistic child is interested in a topic, they may monologue on that subject without stopping to see if anyone is interested. Kids with autism may provide lots of information in a professorial manner. Conversations seem to go one way, rather than in a back-and-forth exchange between two people.
Kids with autism can have trouble taking others’ perspectives. So, they don’t always know how to engage and interact with other people. Their social interactions might not be as smooth or appropriate. These difficulties can rub kids the wrong way, make interactions awkward, and ultimately turn peers away.
Neurodiversity can lead to a child feeling misunderstood. Society may not accept who they are and how they communicate. It is important for society to have empathy for those who communicate differently or have different social interaction needs or styles. It is just as important to help those with neurological differences who want to make friends learn the skills they need to be successful in that endeavor.
It is okay to prefer being alone. However, most people want to connect with other people. Many autistic children long for meaningful friendship even with one peer. These skills can be taught and will benefit your child now and as an adult when they are in dating relationships or out in the workforce.
Without support, children with autism often become frustrated by failed experiences. Often as they age, they withdraw or are left feeling helpless.
Several kids we know on the Spectrum have made comments like, “I’m a solo player” or “I’m a savage.” These phrases imply that they have come to believe they are so unusual or totally incapable of getting along with peers in the typical way. These common misconceptions lead them to feel all alone in the world. With support and understanding, autistic kids can find their happy place and their connections with people.
MYTH #3: AUTISTIC KIDS CAN’T GET DIAGNOSED AS TODDLERS OR PRESCHOOLERS.
Truth: Autistic kids can get diagnosed as young as 1-year-old.
An autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disability that is present from birth. Autism may not be detected and diagnosed until 12 to 30 months of age. That is, people are born with autism, but sometimes the symptoms are not evident until much later. Ideally, kids are diagnosed by the age of three. By then, any significant delays in play skills, language, or behaviors are likely evident.
Generally, young kids with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will be struggling with the following by the age of three:
- Pretend play and symbolic play difficulties
- Sensory differences and sensitivities
- Failure to respond to their name being called
- Emotional regulation issues, resulting in frequent tantrums or meltdowns
- Struggles with peer interactions that may include aggression
- Language delays
- Motor delays
What are the first signs of autism?
Studies show that motor delays may be the first precursors for an autism diagnosis. Motor delays have been identified in children as young as six months old.
Parents and clinicians may notice that a child has poor head and motor control. It will be important to notice delays in sitting up, crawling, or walking as expected. Feeding and sleep challenges can be seen in infants and toddlers. Very reactive or passive behavior are early signs of autism as well (Zwaigenbaum, Brian & Ip, 2019).
Bear in mind that although autism is considered somewhat rare, there are currently 1 in 59 children with autism in the US (Greening, 2020). Given this fact, parents are wise to pursue their concerns fervently and not give up until their questions are answered by qualified professionals.
Why this myth exists
In the school system, many providers are hesitant to use the word autism until kids are older. Instead, many toddlers and preschoolers will be identified at school with a speech or developmental delay. However, it is a myth that autism has been ruled out by the school.
Schools do NOT rule out autism.
In some cases, this later identification can do families a disservice as parents believe that ‘autism has been ruled out’ by the IEP team at the school. What has actually occurred is that the school providers are using a different category of identification to allocate services to the student.
This approach is appropriate when the child has not been diagnosed by a doctor and the symptoms are unclear. However, three things you need to know about the school vs. the clinical diagnosis process.
- The school does not, and cannot, diagnose your child.
- The criteria and the age that the school uses for autism identification has nothing to do with the clinical diagnosis.
- Autism can and should be diagnosed by medical professionals during the toddler or preschool years.
These differences between school identification and clinical diagnosis are often very confusing for parents. Sometimes a parent is blindsided when an IEP team comes to the conclusion that the child qualifies for special education under the autism criteria. It’s natural to think essentially, “the school has given my child a diagnosis of autism.”
What’s even more confusing about the autism criteria in schools? Some school and clinical professionals even call this identification an ‘educational diagnosis of autism.’ We outright reject the term ‘educational diagnosis’ because it is so misleading. Although terms like this make it tough to navigate, parents can rest assured that the school never makes a diagnosis of autism.
Beyond the confusion from some school professionals, parents may also hear of other misconceptions around how early a child can be diagnosed with autism. Some pediatricians will tell parents to ‘wait and see’ because the child has strong language skills or is highly intelligent.
Unfortunately, this time spent ‘waiting and seeing’ amounts to lost time for intervention. In our clinical work, we say instead, “Don’t wait and see. Let’s help him now. “
Finally, parents may be misled by other parents with regard to how early autism can be diagnosed. Some parents went to see a clinician who said a child was too young to test. Perhaps that clinician does not truly diagnose autism or does not have the tools to diagnose very young children.
Unfortunately, that clinician and the parents who retell this story are perpetuating a myth. The fact is that autism can and should be diagnosed during the toddler or preschool years.
MYTH #4: THEY’RE TOO VERBAL AND TOO SMART TO BE AUTISTIC.
Truth: Many autistic children are highly verbal and intelligent.
Why this myth exists
Language delays are an early sign of autism in many cases. Children with autism often have unusual language development, such as going for three years without talking. Then, seemingly ‘all-of-the-sudden’ the child begins to speak.
There are certainly children on the Spectrum with lower IQ scores. On average, about half of autistic children have Average or Above Average IQ scores (Baio et al, 2018; Katusic et al, 2021). Keep in mind that there may be extreme discrepancies in skills. Some autistic kids may have very high skills in one area and very low skills in another. Thus while many autistic individuals have ‘average intelligence’, their intellectual abilities may be quite diverse.
Some people autistic people may have exceptional fluid reasoning skills. This means that they are good at solving new problems or completing puzzles. Other gifted individuals with autism may have strong visual-spatial skills. This means they are skilled at seeing how objects fit together. Finally, there are many kids with autism who have extremely high verbal knowledge.
To account for these diverse cognitive and language profiles autism has severity levels. The autism diagnosis has three different severity levels from 1 to 3.
Severity level 1 is mild. This level is used when traits are subtle and may not be obvious to those who are not trained to diagnose. The most noticeable challenge is evident in social settings.
Severity level 2 is moderate. This level is for individuals who have trouble communicating and speaking in simple sentences. Their struggles may be more noticeable.
Severity level 3 is severe. This level is for individuals with significant language and communication deficits. There also may be impairments in adaptive skills, and social interaction (DSM-5, 2013).
MYTH #5: AVOID GETTING TESTED BECAUSE YOU DON’T WANT A LABEL.
Truth: Generally a ‘label’ can be helpful because it opens the door to services.
Why this myth exists
Parents may be concerned that if teachers and professionals know their child has autism, they will be treated differently. If the school knows your child’s diagnosis, teachers and other providers may want to offer support. This is true. The teachers and other professionals may see your child’s needs a bit differently.
Some parents may feel ‘the school puts their child in a box.’ Parents worry that a diagnosis will prevent providers from seeing their child’s uniqueness. Again, this tendency could be the case for some teachers or other professionals. However, this problem is generally the exception, not the rule.
The other worry parents have is their child will only be with other kids on the Spectrum. If this happens, there are laws to protect your student.
Least restrictive environment mandate
One law that protects students from being excluded from the general education classroom is the ‘Least Restrictive Environment’ mandate. This mandate requires that schools provide education in the least restrictive environment.
This mandate provides that your child should spend as much of the day as possible with typically developing peers. As long as their needs can be met in that environment, your child should be with a diverse group of students. If the LRE is an issue for your family, consider an educational advocate. An educational advocate can help you know your rights and help you speak up on behalf of your child.
Parents often hesitate to get their children diagnosed for fear of essentially ‘making it so.’
This myth is almost as unbelievable as saying that you ‘gave your child’ strep throat because you thought they had it. Autism is either there or it is not. You can not think it into being. Diagnostic tools for autism are sophisticated. There are straightforward ways to rule autism in or out for your child.
In practice, we have seen young adults who realize they have autism and are deeply saddened to learn the news so late in life. These clients often share that they wish they had gotten help when they were younger. Even if they would not have needed support when they were young, they tend to feel that they would have liked to be a part of the autistic community. The take home message here is that a diagnosis can be meaningful and important for many autistic people.
When should parents consider an autism evaluation?
It was mentioned earlier that children could be diagnosed with autism as young as 12 months. Therefore, parents are wise to consider an assessment as concerns arise. The services that diagnosed young children qualify for can enable them to make significant gains and strides in developing social reciprocity, behavioral compliance, and emotional awareness.
Can children ‘grow out of autism’?
Although autism can present many challenges to children and families, it is reasonable to have hope that autistic children can lead happy and productive lives. Dr. Deborah Fein’s research shows that with treatment 20 % of young children learn enough skills to no longer have a diagnosis of autism. The other 80 % of children in this study made considerable gains. Children who had strengths in language and adaptive skills had the most gains.
Current studies suggest that a researcher’s goal is not to remove an autism diagnosis or identity. Instead, it is key to teach important skills needed for a child to thrive (Eigsti, Girolamo, Fein, 2022). Autism can present many challenges in terms of forming relationships and pursuing vocational goals. Early intervention continues to be important for autistic children. Treatment can be the key that unlocks the door to new dreams, a sense of purpose, a fulfilling life.
DON’T WAIT FOR HELP WITH AUTISM. START TODAY.
It is important to assess children at a young age and to determine whether services are needed.
Learn from Cadey whether autism symptoms may be showing up for your child. When you understand your child’s symptoms, you can begin to make things better. In just minutes a day, learn more about the causes and symptoms of autism.
REFERENCES: AUTISM RESEARCH
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Baio J, Wiggins L, Christensen DL, Maenner MJ, Daniels J, Warren Z, Kurzius-Spencer M, Zahorodny W, Robinson Rosenberg C, White T, Durkin MS, Imm P, Nikolaou L, Yeargin-Allsopp M, Lee LC, Harrington R, Lopez M, Fitzgerald RT, Hewitt A, Pettygrove S, Constantino JN, Vehorn A, Shenouda J, Hall-Lande J, Van Naarden Braun K, Dowling NF. Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years – Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2014. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2018 Apr 27;67(6):1-23. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.ss6706a1. Erratum in: MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2018 May 18;67(19):564. Erratum in: MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2018 Nov 16;67(45):1280. PMID: 29701730; PMCID: PMC5919599.
Eigsti IM, Girolamo T, Fein D. Neurodiversity and Early Autism. JAMA Pediatr. 2022 Dec 1;176(12):1272. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4141. PMID: 36315139.
Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Maja Z. Katusic, Scott M. Myers, Amy L. Weaver, Robert G. Voigt; IQ in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Population-Based Birth Cohort Study. Pediatrics December 2021; 148 (6): e2020049899. 10.1542/peds.2020-049899
Urbistondo Cano, Fran & Simon, Gail (2022). From Autism Spectrum to Multi-Spectra Living. Murmurations: Journal of Transformative Systemic Practice, 4(2), 101-147. https://doi.org/10.28963/4.2.8
Zwaigenbaum, L., Brian, J. A., & Ip, A. (2019). Early detection for autism spectrum disorder in young children. Paediatrics & Child Health, 24(7), 424-432.