While the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been used by scientists and doctors for decades, we don’t have all the facts surrounding this developmental disability. Finding the advice and support autism families need can be challenging as there is a lot of inconsistent information and technical progress can be slow.
Debunking misconceptions about autism
To understand autism and its symptoms, parents and family members must be able to discern autism myths vs autism facts. You should make it a habit to investigate new autism information and check its integrity using basic research.
As a parent, friend, or family member of a person with autism, it is crucial to get the right information and be aware of basic autism facts.
This article will set the record straight on some of the most common myths surrounding the topic of autism spectrum disorder.
Myths around diagnosis
Myth: There is no official diagnostic test for autism
Fact: There is no medical test or blood test that leads to an autism diagnosis. The process is simple but can be time-intensive due to the different stages involved. Diagnosing autism can be done in as early as 18 months.
The CDC states that, in order to receive an autism diagnosis, a child/patient must undergo two processes:
- Developmental screening
- Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation
Developmental screening involves a doctor’s checkup where the clinician checks the child’s physical and mental health and looks for autism red flags, like missing elements of developmental milestones.
The CDC recommends children should be screened specifically for ASD during the 18th and 24th month, and even after that if the child is considered at high risk of ASD, which can include:
- Preterm birth
- Low birth weight
- Having a sibling with ASD
When a doctor determines further evaluation is needed after the initial screening, then they might refer you to a developmental specialist or pediatrician to proceed to the next step, which is a Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation.
The Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation may involve one, some, or all of the following:
- Interview with parents and/or primary caregiver
- Hearing and vision screening
- Genetic testing
- Neurological testing
- Other medical testing
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The CDC has also released a section on its website called Myths about Developmental Screening to help clarify issues surrounding autism assessment in children and general misconceptions about autism.
Myth: There are no adequate screening tools for preschoolers
Fact: This is no longer true today, as screening measures have been established and have sensitivities greater than 70%.
Myth: Extensive medical training is needed to be able to diagnose autism
Fact: Most screening tools do not require extensive training and can be accomplished by paraprofessionals.
Myth: Screening can take a long time
Fact: Most screening tests only take 15 minutes, and some only need around two minutes of professional time.
Myth: Tools that include information from parents are not valid and unreliable
Fact: Research has shown that parents are valid sources of information and can help detect developmental disabilities, including autism, by up to 80%.
Myths around autism therapies and treatment
Myth: There is no treatment for autism
Fact: While there is no “cure” for autism, there are many types of autism treatments and therapies that can help reduce challenges and improve a child’s quality of life.
Some of these techniques include:
Early intervention services can help children from birth up to three years of age learn critical developmental skills. Children without an autism diagnosis who have developmental delays are also eligible for early intervention services. Early intervention is available in the US and is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Behavior and communication-based therapies
Behavior and communication approaches like Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), Occupational therapy (OT), and speech therapy are recognized and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for children with developmental disorders like autism.
These approaches and treatment styles are widely accepted among doctors and childcare specialists as they follow a structure and provide direction and organization for a child’s treatment plan.
Just like their neurotypical peers, children with autism need the same amount of nutrients for good overall health. Getting all the vitamins and minerals needed can be a challenge for many children on the spectrum, however, due to food aversions and other challenging behaviors during mealtime.
Parents who cannot find solutions to their child’s food aversions might choose vitamin supplements, some of which are marketed specifically for children on the spectrum. If you are considering giving your child nutritional supplements, always consult with your child’s doctor to ensure he/she is getting the right nutrients that fit his/her medical profile.
Supplements for autism vary depending on the child’s needs. Most supplements contain Vitamin C, D, B6, B12, Omega 3, and Magnesium.
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A study led by Professor James B. Adams of Arizona State University found that vitamin supplements, essential fatty acids, and a healthy gluten-free casein-free diet can have a positive impact on children with autism.
The study involved giving supplements and applying the gluten-free casein-free diet to the treatment group that comprised 67 children and adults with autism (ages 3-58) and 50 non-sibling neurotypical controls of similar age and gender. The study concluded that the treatment group “had significantly greater improvement in autism symptoms and developmental age.”
While supplements are alternative ways to add nutrients to a child’s diet, another nutrition-based treatment is to remove certain food groups that are believed to have a negative effect on children with autism. One such diet is called the gluten-free casein-free diet. This diet takes away all gluten and casein from the child’s food intake. Gluten comes from wheat, rye, and barley, while casein comes from cow’s milk.
The gluten-free casein-free diet has gained popularity over time, as many parents reported improved behavior in their child. Although not everyone in the scientific community confirms the effectiveness of this diet, the amount of positive feedback from parents and caregivers is significant enough for experts to conduct further research.
A nutrition-based approach is a healthy approach. The key is to do ample research before committing your child to a new diet. It is also in your child’s best interest to consult a doctor to ensure that the diet is safe and appropriate to your child’s needs and physical well-being.
Myths around medication for autism symptoms
Myth: there is no medication for autism
Fact: The CDC states that there are no medications that can cure autism spectrum disorder or treat the main symptoms. However, some medications can help treat certain conditions associated with autism, such as irritability, aggression, depression, and hyperactivity.
Medical treatments should be FDA-approved and recommended by a doctor. Medication for autism can include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – these are antidepressants that help reduce repetitive behaviors, improve eye contact, and decrease anxiety
- Tricyclics – have the same use as SSRIs but known to have fewer side effects
- Antipsychotic medications – reduce irritability in children with autism (as young as five years old) and teenagers (up to 16 years old)
- Stimulants – increase focus and decrease hyperactivity in children with autism.
- Anticonvulsants – treat seizures and seizure disorders like epilepsy, a condition that can come with autism
- CBD oil – works with anxiety and sleep issues
What are the key facts about autism?
With the prevalence of the internet and social media, it is easy for parents to get incorrect or inaccurate information about autism spectrum disorder. Publishing false information can spread different myths about autism online and can mislead parents into using solutions that might do more harm than good.
Here are some interesting facts about autism worth sharing with friends and family:
Fact: People with autism have fascinating abilities and talents
Everyone on the autism spectrum has something unique to offer the world. Most children with autism are passionate, accepting, and open-minded.
Fact: Many children with autism want to have friends
Despite the misconception that children with autism are socially withdrawn and anti-social, studies have shown that children on the spectrum want to have friends, but they often lack the social and communication skills needed to achieve this goal.
Fact: Autism is a spectrum
Different children with autism will have their own set of challenges and talents. There is a saying: “If you met one person with autism, you met one person with autism.” It is often a misconception that all people with autism have superior intelligence (as in the movie Rain Man).
Fact: Early diagnosis and therapies can help long-term
The CDC ensures parents and caregivers that early diagnosis and proper treatment can have a significant impact on a child’s improvement over time.
Fact: Adults with autism can lead productive lives, just like their neurotypical peers
With proper treatment and emotional support, children with autism can grow up to become self-reliant members of society who have jobs and live independently.
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Fact or Myth? Do vaccines cause autism?
This is one of the biggest possible myths on the subject of autism. The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine was identified as a possible link to the development of autism in 1998 by a study led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. The study was only conducted on 12 children, but it gained massive attention from the public. The controversial study led to other studies which were inconclusive and found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The Wakefield study was then investigated and later retracted on the grounds of falsified data in a report published in the British Medical Journal.
Years later, another vaccine ingredient called thimerosal, which is a preservative that contains mercury, was identified to be an autism risk factor. In response, the CDC funded nine studies to further explore this hypothesis. None of the studies were successful in establishing a thimerosal-autism link.
The vaccine-autism controversy is one of the most popular theories about what “causes” people to be on the autism spectrum. Many now see it as a myth, but there are still members of the autism community and also neurotypical people who believe it to be true.
When it comes to information about autism spectrum disorder, it’s important to discern which ones are facts and which ones might be myths. The key is to know which are the reliable sources of information, such as the CDC website and other reputable organizations that support research for autism.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
Learn the Signs, Act Early program. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/index.html
The Heritability of Autism Spectrum Disorder. 26, September 2017. Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2654804
What causes autism? Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/autism#causes
Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. 28 February, 1998. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9500320
Wakefield study linking MMR vaccine, autism uncovered as complete fraud. February 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.healio.com/news/pediatrics/20120325/wakefield-study-linking-mmr-vaccine-autism-uncovered-as-complete-fraud
Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html
Screening and Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/screening.html
Enhancing the Algorithm for Developmental-Behavioral Surveillance and Screening in Children 0 to 5 Years. May 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51096138_Enhancing_the_Algorithm_for_Developmental-Behavioral_Surveillance_and_Screening_in_Children_0_to_5_Years
Overview of Early Intervention. 1 September, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ei-overview/
Gluten- and casein-free dietary intervention for autism spectrum conditions. 4 January, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3540005/
Autism Diet and Nutrition: How Does it Affect Autism Health? Retrieved from: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-diet-and-nutrition/
Medication Treatment for Autism. Retrieved from: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/treatments/medication-treatment
Myths & Facts about Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.kennedykrieger.org/stories/myths-facts-about-autism-spectrum-disorder
Myths about autism. Retrieved from: https://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/understanding-autism/about-autism/myths-about-autism
Use of GFCF Diets in Children with ASD. An Investigation into Parents’ Beliefs Using the Theory of Planned Behaviour. June 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6667690/
Comprehensive Nutritional and Dietary Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder—A Randomized, Controlled 12-Month Trial. 17 March 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/3/369/htm
How nutritional status, diet and dietary supplements can affect autism. A review. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23789306