Why is autism spectrum disorder (ASD) still so confusing?
“Autism may be confusing to both ordinary people and professionals because some of its behavioural characteristics remind those of other, more common and better-described conditions, such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and oppositional defiant disorder,” explains developmental psychologist Oksana Hagerty.
Newer brain research has moved from how we process concrete concepts like maths and language to how the brain manages with more abstract concepts that play a role in ASD – such as social and emotional intelligence. As neurologists gain a better understanding of the brain, they’re able to debunk more and more myths about autism. These are the outdated beliefs doctors wish people would stop believing.
Myth: Individuals with ASD are emotionless
Some people assume that autism leaves a person incapable of experiencing true emotions. But autism is a spectrum disorder, and people may express a range of emotions from excitement to anger, whereas others are more restricted in their expression. But individuals with ASD can undoubtedly recognise and feel emotions from others, regardless of how they express it. According to an article in Paediatric Health, Medicine, and Therapeutics, most children with ASD are able to recognise emotions comparable to their same-age peers by matching them. They can often label simpler feelings, like happiness and sadness, though they can struggle to identify emotions like surprise and fear, explains paediatrician Dr Tamara Bugembe.
Myth: They prefer to stay isolated
It’s no secret that social impairments affect individuals on the autism spectrum. Those on the spectrum may find it difficult to develop relationships with their peers due to a combination of a delayed ability for spontaneous sharing, communication delays and an impaired ability to recognise subtleties in facial expressions, body posture and eye contact. However, this has no bearing on an individual’s desire to progress in social relationships and settings. Instead, an individual with autism often feels so uncomfortably out of place in social situations that he or she would rather avoid them until they learn the proper tools to progress. According to the US Foundation for Autism Support and Training, some may “find it threatening to be in crowds or groups of people because they may have difficulty reading another person’s facial expressions, and as a result, may misinterpret another person’s intentions.” But this doesn’t reflect one’s desire for support, understanding and friendship. “Many teenagers I see in my clinic seemed happy in their own company when they were younger but craved friendships and relationships as they got older. They tell me that they want to make friends but do not know how to go about making them or maintaining them,” says Dr Bugembe.