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Autism: Myths versus facts

Written By: Simone Sonnier, UT Physicians | Updated: April 20, 2022
National Autism Awareness Month

National Autism Awareness Month is a time to raise awareness of the extremely common, yet misunderstood condition.

Although autism is an extremely common disorder that affects millions of adults and children worldwide, there are still countless misconceptions surrounding the condition and its origin.

“In the age of the internet and social media where we can access so much information, and it all looks very official, we have to make sure that the sources of information we follow are reliable and based on current medical science,” explained Cathy L. Guttentag, PhD, clinical child psychologist with UT Physicians Pediatric Center for Autism and Related Conditions.

In recognition of National Autism Awareness Month, Guttentag shares the facts behind three widespread myths.

Myth: Autism is caused by vaccines

This falsehood originated in 1998 when a published study claimed there was a causal link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. Although the study was retracted after it was found to be highly flawed and falsified, the damage was already done.

Cathy L. Guttentag
Cathy L. Guttentag, PhD

“Despite numerous research studies over the years that have disproven a link between vaccines and autism, a recent article reported that 1 in 3 Americans still believe there is a connection,” said Guttentag, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

Celebrity influencers with no medical background have continued to promote this false view, leading to dire consequences, such as the resurgence of preventable illnesses and death.

The answer to what truly causes autism is complex. Cases can be broken down into genetic or nongenetic factors.

“Studies are showing that about 80% of the time, autism has a genetic basis and that over a hundred different genes, as well as chromosomal abnormalities, may play a role in causing autism,” explained Guttentag. “However, that doesn’t mean we can always identify the specific genetic cause for an individual child.”

Ultimately, there’s still much to be discovered about the condition, and new studies are being released quite often.

Myth: People with autism don’t understand emotions or care about social relationships

The generalization that autistic individuals do not experience or value emotional connections is harmful and completely unfounded.

The psychologist shares that some people may have a difficult time interpreting others’ emotional expressions and body language, or they could be highly sensitive to the moods of those around them.

“People with autism are unique individuals with varying personalities and skills, just like neurotypical people,” she said. “They may show their feelings in different ways and might need support to learn to modulate their behaviors, but it’s important not to assume that they don’t care about others.”

Myth: All children with autism should receive ABA therapy

ABA therapy, or applied behavior analysis, is a structured and intense approach to teaching children with special needs. Although it’s strongly associated with autism, it was initially developed for children with intellectual disabilities. Data is recorded to document a child’s conduct and responses to different intervention strategies, using systematic procedures to identify how to reward desirable behaviors and alternatively not reward undesirable actions. It is also used to teach skills by breaking them down into small steps and incorporating many practice opportunities.

This method can be highly effective to address tantrums, aggressive or self-harming behavior, or anything considered unsafe or disruptive. However, there are children with autism who do not need such a concentrated level of teaching.

“Some children may do really well in general education classes with support for higher-level skills such as participating in peer group activities and understanding other’s perspectives,” shared Guttentag. “Other therapies can be incorporated as needed, based on an individual’s needs.”

Fact: Help is available

The UT Physicians Pediatric Center for Autism and Related Conditions clinic is a great resource for families on their journey with autism. Referrals from a pediatrician are required to schedule an appointment with a member of the health care team.

“We can provide initial diagnostic evaluations, as well as ongoing follow-up consultations for young children with referral concerns about possible autism or related developmental conditions,” said the psychologist. “We are one of the very few clinics in the Houston area that have the specialized expertise to evaluate very young children for autism, and we take that responsibility seriously.”

Patient age can range from infancy to 8 years old. For additional information, visit their page.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.