Sad but true, this type of misunderstanding still occurs. However, as the number of people diagnosed escalates to epidemic proportions, most people today have come across autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Still, as ASD are mysterious and have attributes that can be strange, awe-inspiring, and unexplainable, there are many myths that abound. Here are a few of them.Myth #1: The Rain Man Myth—Everyone with an ASD Has a Special, Extraordinary Talent
In the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays Raymond, a young man who has autism. He goes on a road trip with his brother, played by Tom Cruise. Raymond has an incredible gift with numbers. His brother discovers this, and takes him off to Las Vegas so he can gamble and win some money.
There are certainly individuals with ASD who have extraordinary talent or, more usually, an inconsistent profile where they excel or do well in one area and have low performance in others. For example, years ago I worked with a young man who had a gift for memorizing and was infatuated with sports. On my first day of work at Fairview State Hospital, he came up to me and said, "I used to be a sports newscaster. Ask me any question about sports and I'll fill you in." He had memorized the pertinent statistics for all the World Series from the previous two decades. We talked sports and I did find him a bit odd. For a few minutes I entertained the thought that he was another employee, thinking what a dedicated person he must be to quit working for the media and join the staff at this hospital. Then I looked on my roster and realized he was one of my students for functional living skills. He definitely had a talent for sports statistics, but hadn't yet learned how to dress himself independently or tie his own shoes.
However, there are many more individuals with ASD who have no particular special talent, any more than the rest of us do.Myth #2: Everyone Who Has an ASD Is a Genius, a Thomas Jefferson in Waiting
It is true that some people with ASD are geniuses, but not everyone is. Thomas Jefferson, it appears, had characteristics of Asperger's, within the range of modern diagnostic criteria. Others such as Beethoven, Isaac Newton, and Einstein have all been mentioned as famous people who could have been diagnosed as on the spectrum. However, for every person with an ASD who is a genius, there are many more who are mere mortals like ourselves.Myth #3: Everyone Who Has an ASD Is Mentally Retarded
First of all, because of the nature of ASD, it is difficult to ascertain the cognitive level of people with these disorders. Many people with autism have communicated that they are sensory overloaded. Some or all of their senses are 100 times more sensitive than others, and therefore they process the environment differently from neurotypicals (i.e., individuals considered to be "normal"). People who are unable to speak, but have learned to type or write independently, express the difficulty they have in controlling their motor planning, i.e., sending signals to their muscles, much like people who have had strokes. In his book The Mind Tree, Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay explains, "Of course from my knowledge of biology I knew that I had voluntary muscles and involuntary muscles. I also knew that my hands and legs were made of voluntary muscles. But I experimented with myself that when I ordered my hand to pick up a pencil, that I could not do it. I remember long back when I had ordered my lips to move I could not do it."
Secondly, if you start with the perception that someone is mentally retarded, the expectations for that individual aren't going to be very high, and he will never be given the opportunity to reach as far as he can go. Better to hope he's a genius and be disappointed than never to have given a person the benefit of the doubt. The reality is that the population of people with ASD is much like the general population: some of us have special talents, some of us are geniuses, and some of us are retarded. But most of us are just average earthlings.