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14 Things Experts Wish People Knew About Autism

Autism experts clear the air on what it really means to be on the spectrum.

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People with autism can be affectionate

Those who don’t know anyone with an autism diagnosis may believe that people with autism aren’t affectionate. This misconception tends to stem from the fact that some individuals with autism don’t like to be touched, hugged, or made to look others in the eye. According to Melissa Reiner, M.Ed., behaviour and autism consultant, and founder of AskMelissaNow.com, “I can meet 50 different individuals, all with a diagnosis of ASD, who all present differently. I have worked with many individuals who have a diagnosis of ASD, who can be very affectionate.”

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People with autism have varying levels of intelligence

Just as people without autism have different levels of intelligence, people with autism do, too. Reiner points out that individuals on the spectrum can have an IQ ranging from very low to genius level, “just like every human being.” Recent research has linked 40 new human-intelligence genes responsible for a high IQ to autism, noting that many—but not all—individuals with the genes are on the autism spectrum.

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People with autism can succeed in school

Those varying levels of intelligence can equate to different levels of academic success for people on the autism spectrum. It’s not uncommon for individuals with autism to excel in the classroom when they “receive clear directives, clearly communicated ideas, and support within a structured environment,” says Linda S. Lucas, PhD, licensed mental health counsellor and an assistant professor in the department of human services at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. Beacon College itself has a 70 per cent graduation rate and an 83 per cent employment placement rate among its students with autism.

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People with autism can have successful careers

It’s a common misconception that people on the spectrum always fall behind their peers developmentally. However, where one particular skill might be behind, others are often extremely advanced in people with autism, and it’s absolutely possible for these people to have successful careers using their best skills.

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People with autism know what’s going on

When a person with autism seems wrapped up in his own world, he might be to a certain extent. But that certainly doesn’t mean that he isn’t paying attention. Reiner explains that she has worked with children on the spectrum who are able to point out who isn’t in a room within seconds of walking into it, even though it seems like the children haven’t acknowledged those in the room. People with autism may not observe the same way others do, but rather, in a way that makes sense for them.

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People with autism do want to be social

People with autism are like anyone else in that many do desire to have meaningful friendships and relationships with others. However, there are often social deficits involved that don’t make it easy for them to do so. According to Lucas, people on the spectrum might experience social awkwardness, difficulty understanding social cues, and communication problems that make it challenging for them to establish the relationships they want to seek out.

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They may struggle with low self-esteem

Low self-esteem can also be a factor in an individual with autism’s ability to establish and maintain relationships. “Autistic children are often accused of being unempathetic and uncaring, so they are often left out of social situations,” Lucas explains. “They hurt, they feel, and their struggles contribute to a lack of self-esteem—thereby compounding their socializing struggles.” We can help autistic kids by helping other kids understand them better. Here are 12 children’s books that encourage kids to be kind.

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It’s not the parents’ fault

The parents of children with autism sometimes get blamed for being the reason that their child is autistic. Lucas chalks this up to a “lack of knowledge about the disorder” and says that “parents cannot control the impact of mutated or faulty genes (what most research believes causes autism) during the developmental process in the womb.” Lucas adds that parents of kids with autism commit to a continuous process of learning and making accommodations for their children, and they do not deserve the judgment they often get, which can compound the challenges they face every day.

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Even the best parents may feel like failures

“You can be the best parent in the world and often feel like a failure while parenting an individual with a diagnosis of autism,” says Reiner. Parenting a child with autism requires a lot of work, education, and a constant commitment to do whatever it takes to help that child thrive in her environment. It’s not an easy job for any parent, even when they have an excellent support system in place. It’s crucial that others are aware of the common struggles parents face every day and are willing to support them. Reiner adds that it’s important for doctors, therapists, caregivers, educators, and the public to remain “committed to educating and encouraging parents as they navigate through challenges intrinsic to parenting all individuals.”

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Certain labels can be harmful

High-functioning and low-functioning are two terms used to describe the degree of ability a person with autism has. However, Reiner explains that these terms can be incredibly damaging to individuals on either end of the spectrum because they don’t give an accurate picture of what everyone’s strengths and deficits are. Instead, it’s important to treat each autistic person as an individual with specific needs rather than focus on their labels.

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People with autism are not limited in all abilities

Many people with autism do struggle with skills and self-control, including communication, social bonding, and impulsivity. However, these struggles don’t equate to having limited abilities; instead, individuals with autism require different paths toward learning, socializing, and completing everyday activities to excel in their own ways. “While we may have to approach different ways of empowering and inspiring individuals with autism, [they], like all individuals, are capable and competent contributors to this world,” says Reiner.

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An autism diagnosis isn’t a life sentence for a caretaker

As important as it is for parents or caretakers to remain dedicated to the care of a child or adult on the spectrum, it’s also important to remember that autism doesn’t always equal a life sentence of caregiving. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is exactly that—a spectrum disorder that includes various levels of skills and abilities, reminds Lucas. Many individuals with autism are proven success stories that show they can overcome challenges. Parents or caretakers should focus on helping their loved ones thrive, rather than dwelling on what the future may hold.

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Many therapies seem promising

There are various therapies currently in place to help people with autism meet their needs and goals. Occupational therapy, speech therapy, and various behavioural therapies are common for those on the spectrum to learn how to communicate, socialize, and modify behaviours. Experts consistently work to develop new therapies to help individuals with autism from diagnosis into adulthood. Reiner mentions one particular therapy known as Relationship Developmental Intervention (RDI), which “encourages an individual to cultivate skills and levels of competence from an internal desire to connect with others in a meaningful way” through guided participation in their most comfortable environments, like home and school.

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A new medication might improve social bonds

There are no medications that can treat autism, but some medications can treat symptoms associated with autism. Researchers continuously seek new therapies and medications that might help individuals on the spectrum develop more closely with their peers. (These are the four questions you should always ask before starting a new prescription.) Balovaptanone is a promising drug that was recently granted “breakthrough therapy” status by the FDA; it may help children with autism bond socially with others by targeting the appropriate receptors in the brain that help people communicate.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest