10 things you think you know about autism but actually don’t... When it comes to the myths surrounding autism and neurodiversity wrong information can lead to isolation, cruelty and even the use of harmful therapies. The North East Autism Society is campaigning this week, April 1-7, for Autism Acceptance, not just awareness in a bid to step away from old perceptions and a step towards a celebration of neurodiversity in the North-east. Below the team from NEAS share their top ten fake facts... Autistic people can’t show empathy OK so forget Sheldon Cooper for a moment and replace autistic with the word ‘humans’. Humans can sometimes find expressing empathy difficult. But others don’t. And here in lies the crux of myth fake fact number one! It is true to say, however, that one commonality that some autistic people share is that they often find reading social situations tricky and can struggle to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes’. Conversely, it’s very common, also, for autistic people to be highly empathetic. So much so that some neurodivergent people will actually experience pain in their bodies because they feel so much for another person. From an outside perspective it can look like the autistic person is attention seeking or making it about themselves if they react accordingly. However, that intense feeling can be so much that the autistic person switches it off completely, so they look like they're not being empathetic. In a nutshell: some autistic people express empathy, some don’t. Just like all humans. But the ones who do express it will often experience a physical reaction to this powerful emotion and for those who appear not to it's because the Autistic person is protecting themselves, but it looks like they don't care. Autism can be cured Stand back and watch as we break the internet with this one. Well if autism was a disease – maybe it could be cured. But as it’s just the word used to describe a normal variation in human brain ‘wiring’ it can neither be ‘cut out’ or treated away. We’re passionate about this one because believing something can be cured inherently means we think of it in negative terms – like it’s an abnormality. But what if we stopped putting people and their unique brains in boxes of ‘like us’ and not ‘like us’ and we started thinking, ‘hey, just like biodiversity – where there are lots of variations of the one thing, maybe we should see autism as part of neurodiversity – that it’s a normal variation of human brains?’ Let’s be clear, autism can sometimes sit alongside other challenges and conditions meaning life for an autistic person, and their families, can be a challenge. We understand why some people would seek ways to help. But the cure culture is something we won’t support. Look at our investigation last year on the use of harmful bleaches to ‘cure’ children of their autism… Such thinking is toxic, dangerous and doesn’t help anyone involved. In summary – what a load of nonsense. Let’s celebrate our uniqueness and differences, and play to our strengths. Autistic people can’t make eye contact OK so let’s be frank, looking someone straight in the face can be a challenge for anyone and for some autistic people eye contact is not just difficult, but downright painful. The reason this one hits the myth headlines so often is that it used to be a hard and fast part of a doctor’s checklist used to identify autism… until we realised two things: one – it’s not true for everyone (especially if you are diagnosed as an adult and have learned how to cope with what society expects) and 2 – every autistic person is unique and there are as many children, young people and adults who can make eye contact as there are that can’t. It’s also true to say that most of us can learn to behave in a way that helps us ‘get by’ in life. If we go for a job interview we work on our handshake, our posture… our eye contact. Many autistic people have learned how to navigate life by doing what they feel is necessary – but at what cost? Because autistic people commonly share sensory differences and experience stronger reactions to sensory input (an example of under stimulation would be craving strong tastes. ‘Over’ would be needing to wear ear defenders to soften noise) eye contact can be felt like a burning or stabbing pain. In short – it’s not true, but just in case, why not ask any person you’re speaking to if they mind you making eye contact. Autistic children are naughty Wait while we giggle at this one. The reality; ALL children can be naughty. But we think what this one is referring to is the snap judgement offered when autistic children may be struggling to deal with a situation or some kind of change in their environment. While all autistic people process the world around them in a way unique to them, there are some commonalities. Sensory overload is one. Often referred to as a ‘meltdown’, if a child who experiences sensory stimuli in a powerful way is taken to an unusual or unfamiliar environment this can be an assault on their senses. A shopping mall, for example. Noise, light, crowds, smells, temperature… throw in any communication challenges also common for children who are autistic and what do we get? Something, that with a cursory glance, could come across as a naughty child. Under the banner of neurodiversity – normal variations of human brain wiring – we also have ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and things like Tourette Syndrome. These all present challenges in the hustle and bustle of society… what’s not helpful, however, is assuming the worst. To sum up – some autistic kids are naughty, because some kids are naughty. But often times what’s perceived as naughty is a set of behaviours in response to sensory changes. So now you know, how about we go for understanding and support? Autistic people can’t make friends We get why you might think this, but we’re happy to say this isn’t true either. Again, as humans, some of us are social pinballs bouncing off each other and enjoying the buzz… but others of us need to work harder at making and sustaining our relationships. If you found reading social cues and adapting to new environments a challenge, you can understand why such a scenario could be off putting – but perhaps we’ve limited friendship to quite a narrow social construct? A lot of autistic adults count their online communities as their friendship circles, and with the young people we work with they are only too keen to make friends, especially with other autistic children who ‘get them’. For those people who can’t communicate verbally or who have other associated challenges, friendships will be more difficult – but by no means impossible. Of course all of this is seen from a non-autistic perspective, autistic people often socialise perfectly well amongst themselves. What we do recognise, though, is that if any human being ‘feels’ like they stand out they will invariably find ‘fitting in’ harder. Which is why we are all about acceptance. All different. All amazing. All deserving of friendships, love and support. All autistic people are geniuses! Move over Rain Man, stand aside Turing, there’s room for us all here. No, absolutely not, this simply isn’t true. In years gone by autism was described as a spectrum with the diagnoses of Asperger’s being given to people at the ‘higher end’ of the spectrum. We hate that language. And thankfully some of this terminology is changing. What it implied, however, is that some people who are autistic are super intelligent, and others are at the polar opposite of this scale. That’s not helpful and doesn’t actually give a very clear picture of what life is like for that person, or who that person really is. Like all humans, we’re all different. There have definitely been some incredible humans elevated to fame for their skills and talents, and some of them may be autistic. But there will be a whole lot of people feeling like huge disappointments if it’s expected that all autistic people should reach genius standard. Top tip – celebrate everyone. We’ve all got something worth cheering for. Autism only affects white people Do you know what, we won’t even give this one air time. Here’s who can be autistic: anyone. Why? Because we all have brains. And what else? Putting people in boxes doesn’t help anyone. Seriously, why are we still talking about this one?! Only boys can be autistic Let’s start be refuting this one off the bat. It’s nonsense. But this is why it’s important to talk about it: if girls don’t know, and parents of girls don’t know, autism applies to them too then life will be a series of hurdles and no one will understand why anyone is struggling. In the past with limited knowledge it was thought that autism was more of a male ‘condition’, however, with better analytics and evidence we know this isn’t the case. And now we know this we are seeing an increase in numbers of girls being diagnosed. It’s also important to note that the way girls 'mask' things they struggle with often aligns with social expectations of what girls should be doing. So an autism diagnosis may present itself earlier with a boy, but we certainly hear from a lot of women diagnosed later in life, who felt a weight lifted when they now had a word to describe who they really are. Autistic people can’t tell lies Maybe this would be better expressed as autistic people are often honest. Very honest. Where we think this stems from is known communication challenges around reading and understanding social cues, language nuances and body language making it tricky for some autistic people to pick up when a gentler approach could be the softer option. I asked an autistic young man if he liked my t-shirt. He told me the truth. The truth was brutal! If you chat to parents of autistic children they’ll tell you very quickly that like all children, theirs can tell lies! Of course autistic people can tell lies, it's just that some are better than others at it. Autistic people are like jigsaw puzzles So you’ve heard about autism. You Google it, and up comes a multi-coloured image of a jigsaw puzzle piece. It’s beloved the world over – even by parents of autistic children, but actually what is is really saying? That an autistic person has a bit missing? That an autistic person is a puzzle – and needs someone else to reconstruct them? That autism is a childhood thing? We believe associating autism with jigsaw imagery is derogatory and offensive. So in a nutshell – we’ve banned jigsaw imagery and this year we’ve even stepped away from being happy with just autism awareness. Awareness requires no action. Acceptance, on the other hand, means all of us making a shift in how we see and value each other. We’re going for gold. We’re talking about neurodiversity. We’re asking if you’ll join us in changing the narrative around autism by celebrating autism acceptance week.