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15 myths about autism

15 Autism myths that should be debunked

Updated: January 4, 2024 · 9 Minute Read

Amy Gong

Reviewed by:

Amy Gong, Neurodiversity Advocate


  • There are many misconceptions about autism floating around. Many people are unaware of what autism actually is or how it affects a person’s life.
  • Autism is a developmental difference within a person’s brain that causes challenges and strengths unique to the individual. Some autistic kids might also have a learning disability like dyslexia or behavioral disorder like OCD.
  • Not all people are autistic, and not all autistic people are the same. Rather than a scale of “mild” to “severe”, the autism spectrum represents a variety of people, their individual combinations of strengths and difficulties.
  • There’s no clear, determinable cause for autism, and there are many biases involved in the diagnostic process, especially against females and people of color.
  • Now that more people are becoming aware of autism, and the conversations around autism are changing, we need more research, greater autism awareness and acceptance, and we need to listen to autistic people.


Myth 1: “We’re all a little autistic.”

You’re either autistic or you’re not. Many times, people will use this phrase as a way to relate to autistic people and identify with their tics or “quirks”. It’s a well-meaning attempt to say “hey, you’re not that different from everyone else, we all have peculiar behaviors.” However, autism is not just a set of behaviors or “quirks”, it’s a neurological difference that affects how a person experiences the world around them. To say “we’re all a little autistic” kind of trivializes the struggles of autistic people.



Myth 2: “_________ causes autism.”

Research in the field of autism is still a young science, but it’s growing quickly. While scientists may have discovered links between autism and certain factors, there’s no definitive answer on where autism comes from or why those neurological differences develop. Much new research has found a strong link between autism and genetics/heredity. There are also some studies that suggest an environmental factor. However, it’s too early to say for sure. As with most things, it’s likely a combination of environmental and genetic factors.1,7


Myth 3: “You don’t look autistic.”

Autism is a hidden disability; that means, you can’t tell just by looking at someone if they’re autistic or not. There’s no “autism look”, although some autistic people have difficulty with facial expressions or making eye contact, which can account for what others may view as “a look”. Ultimately, there’s no physical indication that someone is autistic, other than maybe behaviors you might notice that are common among some autistic people.



Myth 4: “Only boys have autism.”

There are many autistic females. It’s true that autism is diagnosed about 3.2x more in boys than in girls2, however, there are many reasons why that may be. Girls are commonly diagnosed later in life, never diagnosed, or misdiagnosed.3 The issue comes down to the way professionals diagnose, as well as social norms surrounding gender. 


For many years, autism was considered to be predominantly found in male children, and doctors have based diagnostic criteria and data on observing male autistic children.3 So because many girls don’t fit the autistic male stereotype, they may not receive a diagnosis.2,3 


Another factor is that social norms may disguise signs of autism in females, and that females are usually better at “masking” signs than boys.3 For example, a female child who is quiet or doesn’t engage socially with others might be called “shy” and her parents may not seek out a diagnosis because that behavior is seen as “normal” for a girl. We can’t say for sure autism is more prevalent in boys, but we don’t have enough data to say otherwise.


Myth 5: “Autism is more common in white children.”

Here’s another myth that comes down to diagnostic processes and data. Autism is not necessarily more common in white children, it’s just diagnosed more in non-Hispanic white children. There's an alarming disparity between the age of diagnosis in white children and that of Black children – a difference of about 3 years from parents’ first concern to actual diagnosis.6 Hispanic and Black children, as well as other POC (people of color), are not getting critical diagnoses during the time when therapies and services will be most effective, and many families report being passed around from doctor to doctor or a “wait and see” approach.4 


This disparity may have to do with availability of resources as well as cultural norms and awareness among parents/caregivers.5 There could also be stigmas within their community or culture that discourage caregivers from seeking a diagnosis. Language barriers or access to diagnosticians can be problematic, too. Newer statistics show us there’s a narrowing gap between autism diagnoses across races – basically, it’s not that autism is more common in one race or another, it’s just that there are inequalities within the system of how autism is diagnosed.


Myth 6: “Children with autism just need more discipline.”

Autism is a developmental disability7, not a behavioral issue! Although, as any autism parent will tell you, autistic kiddos can often have challenging behaviors like self-harm, aggression, or irritability. But that’s not due to the child being “spoiled” or a lack of discipline; it’s just a few signs that the child may be struggling with some type of challenge, such as sensory overload, lack of understanding of what they’re being expected to do, tiredness, or even hunger. 


It’s also useful to know that the word “discipline” comes from the root word “disciple”, which means to teach or instruct. Corporal punishment, yelling, or fussing at a child with autism (or any kid) won’t improve their behaviors – if anything, it’ll make it harder for the child to regulate and increase the behaviors!8 So, the next time you see a child “pitching a fit” in public, don’t shame the parent. Consider that it may be the child is in distress or has special needs and their parent is doing the best they can to help them through it.


Myth 7: “Kids with autism don’t show affection.”

While it’s true that many kids with autism experience sensitivity to touch, or don’t like traditional forms of affection like hugs, kisses, being held, etc., kids on the spectrum are affectionate – it just may be in a nontraditional way.9 Each autistic child is different in what type of affection they enjoy and how long they can tolerate it. 


Some kids love hugs, kisses, snuggles, or roughhousing, while others may prefer to just sit quietly with you as they watch their favorite show. Both are ways an autistic person can show you they care, but it’s up to the individual child to decide what feels comfortable for them. My son is very affectionate and loves hugs, nighttime snuggles, “headboodies” (resting foreheads together), etc., but he’s choosy about when he wants those things. 


Kids with autism may also express affection using sign language, pictures, a communication device, or verbally. Not all autistic kids say “I love you”, but they may express that they care about someone or something another way, such as handing you their favorite toy.


Myth 8: “You can catch autism.”

Spending time around an autistic person will not make you autistic. It’s not the flu, you can’t catch it! Like we said before, autism is a developmental difference in the brain. You can’t become autistic; you’re either born autistic or you’re not. If someone appears to “become” autistic, it’s that they’ve always been autistic and you’re only just now noticing the signs.10 Many times female children or adults are misdiagnosed because they have developed ways of coping or “masking” their challenges. Children do tend to copy or mimic behaviors of their peers, though, but that goes both ways – kids may pick up behaviors by watching each other, whether they’re neurotypical or neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD, etc.)


Myth 9: “People with autism can’t lie.”

This is a common misconception about autism. Autistic people are capable of deception, lying, and dishonesty, just like anybody else. Learning to lie is actually an important developmental milestone for children, because it involves “false belief” – that is, trying to convince someone to believe something you yourself know is not true. Children with autism can and do lie, (both for politeness and to stay out of trouble) but they’re not as “good” at it as their neurotypical (non-autistic) peers.11 For some reason, autistic children seem to have difficulty keeping track of their lies compared to neurotypical kids.11


Many autistic people have what others would describe as a naivety or lack of understanding about concepts or social norms that makes them appear “innocent”. A common autistic trait is blunt honesty, with autistic people sometimes being described by those around them as having “no filter”. Because of this perceived “innocence” and tendency toward honesty, people may think autistic people are incapable of “impurity”. People also may try to take advantage of an autistic person’s lack of understanding of certain social rules or expectations, such as tricking them into saying something they don’t know is considered offensive/rude. 


Viewing autistic people as angelic or childlike is considered extremely infantilizing and offensive by many in the autism community. Autistic people are just people – people who can do both “good” and “bad”, just like anyone else.


Myth 10: “They’ll grow out of it.”

Autism is a developmental difference in a person’s brain. If a person is autistic, they’re autistic their whole lives. Autism isn’t a phase; there’s no growing out of it. However, many autistic people learn to “mask” their autism in order to fit in with society and conform to expected social norms. Masking has seriously harmful effects for autistic people, and is especially common in females.12,13 


If a child’s autism diagnosis changes, or if they seem like they’re not autistic anymore when they get older, it’s likely that they either learned how to mask their autism, or they were misdiagnosed in the first place.12 Research that claims children can outgrow autism is damaging and inaccurate; it doesn’t account for masking, or for the kids who later received other diagnoses for autism-adjacent conditions (such as ADHD and behavioral problems). The myth that you can outgrow autism is harmful to autistic kids and their parents.12,13


Myth 11: “There are mild and severe cases of autism.”

Some medical professionals (like doctors) and those who work with autistic people (like ABA therapists) use language like “severe”, “low functioning”, “high-functioning”, etc., to label people with autism. However, as we learn more about autism (through newer research and lived experiences of autistic people), we understand that these labels can be harmful and counterproductive. These terms were phased out of the DSM-V (the most recent version of the manual used to diagnose autism).


No two autistic people are exactly alike, but a lot of autistic people share similar strengths and challenges. Labels like “level 1” or “mildly autistic” are used in medical settings to show how much support a child or adult with autism may need. But these labels can never accurately address each autistic person’s unique experience or needs, and can actually prevent some people with autism from getting the accommodations they need. (For example, the label “high-functioning” may prevent someone from getting accommodations they need because teachers or coworkers think “they’ll be fine”.) In other cases, these labels can deny autistic people access to opportunities or experiences that can improve their quality of life. (For example, caregivers to someone labeled “severely autistic” may never try to potty train or teach the person independent living skills because the label suggests they’re unable to function.)


We can view the spectrum of autism more accurately as a rainbow of varying challenges and strengths; not a scale of “more autistic” or “less autistic” – because there’s no part of an autistic person that isn’t autistic. So, although labeling autism as “mild” or “severe” is often done by the medical community, these labels are hurtful and damaging for autistic people.



Myth 12: “People with autism don’t have emotions.”

When some people think of autism, they may imagine a robotic, detached, self-absorbed character like Dr. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. The stereotype is that autistic people are analytical, all-business, and lack feeling. But autistic people feel things just like any other human. Anger, sadness, frustration, heartbreak, disappointment, and more: the full spectrum of human emotion. However, they may not express their feelings and emotions in a typical way. The stereotype that autistic people are emotionless or robotic can feel dehumanizing to a person with autism.


While it’s true that some autistic people have difficulty recognizing/naming their emotions (alexithymia) or the emotions of others, autistic people are perfectly capable of feeling, empathizing, and loving.14,15 Many social situations rely heavily on reading cues like body language or facial expressions, which can be hard for autistic people. Autistic people may also become overwhelmed by the emotions of others, and may not know how to process the situation or help. In fact, some research suggests people with autism may be more empathetic than neurotypical people.15


Myth 13: “Autistic people can’t live ‘normal’ lives.”

Autistic people do face a variety of difficulties in life, not just because of the challenges from autism itself, but also conditions and situations related to their autism. For example, depression and anxiety are common conditions that autistic people may have.13 Suicide and suicidal ideation are very common in people with autism, too. Autistic people tend to die earlier in life than neurotypical people.16 They face increased pressure and risk from interacting with the police, medical professionals (such as EMTs and doctors), social situations, and being bullied by peers.16 They’re also at higher risk for injury because of these factors, and may battle with things like sleeping disorders, eating disorders, and more. The added stress that comes with being autistic in a neurotypical world can make having a fulfilling and enjoyable life very difficult for autistic people.


However, autistic people can live very fulfilling lives and enjoy success in many areas of life. The type of support someone needs (and how often) depends on the person. One autistic person may be an accomplished academic, but can’t live alone, drive, or order a meal for themselves. Another autistic person may be able to live alone and drive, but may not be able to facilitate meaningful relationships or a career. 


There will always be challenges in an autistic person’s life, but challenges can change over time. (If you’re the parent of an autistic child worried about their quality of life in the future, check out this article). Autistic people can live amazing lives, but having the right support, understanding, and tools makes that more accessible.


Myth 14: “People with autism are all geniuses” or “People with autism are ‘slow’.”

For a long time terms like “high-functioning”, “savant”, or “genius” have been used to label autistic people who are skilled in certain things, or have high IQs. However, the link between autism and intelligence is unclear. Autism is not an intellectual, learning, or cognitive disability; it has to do with the brain’s development (neurodevelopmental disability). But some people do have intellectual, learning, or cognitive disabilities in addition to being autistic. About 70% of children on the autism spectrum also have an intellectual disability.18


IQ tests and traditional ways of measuring intelligence aren’t really effective or accurate for autistic people anyway, especially if they have difficulty communicating.18 Executive functioning (things like being able to maintain relationships, drive a car, or cook a meal) and intelligence can get lumped in together, but are actually two different things. Some research suggests that the brain differences in autistic people may make their brain cells “smarter”, but we can’t know that for sure.19 We need more research to figure out how (or if) autism and intelligence are related, but it’s incorrect to assume someone is intelligent or unintelligent just based on them being autistic.


Myth 15: “Autistic people are violent/dangerous.”

Many autistic children have challenging behaviors like self harm/injury, throwing things, or hitting others when they’re having a meltdown or tantrum. To an outsider, an autistic child (or adult) in the middle of these behaviors may appear to be violent, scary, or downright dangerous. But in order to understand those aggressive behaviors, you need to know that autistic people can struggle with regulating themselves both emotionally and physically, especially if they’re triggered by sensory overload or other factors. This is even more true in children, since their bodies and brains are still developing, and they have extra trouble with regulating, reasoning, and self-control.


The terms “violent” and “dangerous” indicate an intention to do harm. Being around an autistic person during an aggressive episode can be risky; loved ones may be fearful or can even be injured. But that doesn’t mean the person is dangerous, it’s just that their actions are. Usually the person does not intend to harm anyone, but is unable to control their actions in a way that is safe for themselves and others. There are ways of handling and preventing meltdowns to keep autistic people and their loved ones safe. Some families may opt to place their autistic loved one in a specialized facility if they do not feel equipped to manage aggressive behaviors. Although dysregulation and aggression can be scary things to deal with, it doesn’t mean people with autism are violent/intend harm.


Dysregulation has to do with the nervous system and the brain. It’s what happens when we go into “fight or flight” mode; the rational, reasonable, self-controlled part of us shuts down, and there’s stress hormones flooding our bodies. So, what can look like an autistic person in a fit of rage is actually an autistic person struggling with dysregulation and trying their best to get through it.20 At that point, they’re not thinking clearly or in total control of their actions and don’t necessarily mean to cause harm.


Certain things may escalate the behaviors (make things worse) or de-escalate them (help the person calm down). Some autistic kids may have conditions, like behavioral disorders, or environmental factors, like an abusive home life, that contribute to their aggressive behaviors. There are techniques and therapies that can help people (autistic or not) learn to regulate, but it’s not something that happens overnight, and it takes continual practice and patience on the part of caregivers and parents.

People with autism are actually at higher risk of being victims of violence, and face unique challenges when dealing with law enforcement.16 As you can imagine, an autistic person in the middle of a meltdown could look like a threat to someone who doesn’t understand what’s really happening, putting the autistic person at risk. It’s important that we reframe the way we look at challenging behaviors associated with autism.

Dive Deeper

Article References

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  2. Zeliadt N. Autism’s sex ratio, explained. Spectrum | Autism Research News. Published June 13, 2018. Accessed September 27, 2022.
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  5. CDC. Racial and Ethnic Differences in Children Identified with ASD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published April 26, 2018. Accessed September 27, 2022.
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  12. Jones S. We need to stop perpetuating the myth that children grow out of autism. The Conversation. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  13. Cage E, Di Monaco J, Newell V. Experiences of Autism Acceptance and Mental Health in Autistic Adults. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2017;48(2):473-484. doi:10.1007/s10803-017-3342-7
  14. Murphy J, Brewer R. People with Autism Can Read Emotions, Feel Empathy. Scientific American. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  15. Do People With Autism Have “Normal” Empathy & Emotions?. The Elemy Learning Studio. Published June 8, 2020. Accessed September 28, 2022.
  16. Why Do People With Autism Have a Lower Average Lifespan? The Elemy Learning Studio. Published January 5, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2022.
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