April is Autism Acceptance Month! Over the last decade, libraries have done a lot of work to better support autistic families. Many libraries have started sensory storytimes and programs. Some allow autistic families to visit the library before official open hours to provide a less overstimulating experience. Other libraries have converted extra space into entire sensory rooms. However, a lot of misinformation about autism continues to circulate, and it affects how libraries serve their communities. Let’s bust some autism myths together.
Autism: Myth versus Truth
Myths About Who Is Autistic
Myth: Unless you work directly in special education, you’ll almost never work with someone who is autistic.
Truth: The CDC estimates that a little more than 2% of US adults are autistic, and about 1 in 44 children are autistic. For reference, that’s about the same percentage (or slightly more) of the population who are redheads. If 100 people come into your library every day (or week, or hour) then at least 2 of them are likely autistic.
Myth: Autism mainly affects white boys.
Truth: According to the CDC, boys are 4.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. The CDC also states that white children are around 30% more likely to be diagnosed than Black children, and 50% more likely to be diagnosed than Latinx children. However, this is emphatically not because girls and people of color are only rarely autistic. Rather, it is because for many years the research on autism looked exclusively at white boys, and the diagnostic criteria has historically prioritized the white, male experience. Women and people of color often go undiagnosed specifically because of social pressures that force them to mask their autistic traits. This prevents them from getting the same supports and accommodations their white, male counterparts are able to obtain.
Myths About What Autism Is Like
Myth: All autistic people are unempathetic, unable to speak, or unable to make eye contact.
Truth: All autistic people are different. Some can speak on their own, some exclusively use assistive communication technology or non-speaking communication, and some do both. Some find eye contact painful, and some have taught themselves how to make eye contact in order to fit in better socially. When you imagine the spectrum, instead of thinking of a straight line, with “less autistic” on one side, and “more autistic” on the other, think of a color wheel, where each section is a different area an autistic person might have a strength or weakness. All autistics have social difficulties, and all autistics have some need for repetition and/or routine, but those things can be expressed differently from person to person.
Myth: Anyone who is autistic is cognitively disabled – or they are a savant-like genius.
Truth: About 30% of autistics have a cognitive, or intellectual, disability, which means that 70% do not. Around 10% or less may have a savant-like talent like you often see in popular media. It’s important that when we think about the services and collections that we offer, we’re thinking about representing and reaching out to both autistics with and autistics without cognitive disabilities. Remember that just because someone is non-speaking, it does not mean they have a cognitive disability or are unable to express themselves in other ways. Always presume competence when you’re working with anyone with a disability, including someone who is autistic.
Myth: Autism can be “cured” or “reversed.”
Truth: Autism is a physical condition that begins early in the development of the brain. It is heritable, which means that an autistic child likely has an autistic family member somewhere in the tree. Science has thoroughly debunked the idea that autism might be caused by unloving mothers, or vaccines, or a variety of other conspiracy theories. Because autism is based physically in how the brain is wired, it cannot be cured or reversed. With support and accommodations, an autistic person can grow and thrive just like anyone else, but they will still be autistic.
Myths About Supporting Autistic People
Myth: Asperger’s Syndrome is a mild form of autism. People who have it are high-functioning.
Truth: Asperger’s Syndrome was removed from the DSM in 2013 and is no longer in medical use. This diagnostic term came from Hans Asperger, a Nazi collaborator who sent many disabled children to their deaths. It was his belief that so-called high-functioning autistic children could still be used as labor, and in 1994 Asperger’s Syndrome became a diagnosis that distinguished these children from autistic children with cognitive disabilities. For obvious reasons, many autistic people find this offensive term (though some people who were diagnosed before 2013 do still use it, and you may find it used in older books). It’s best to steer clear of this term.
Labeling someone as high- or low-functioning is also hurtful to the autistic community. Some autistic people may be able to fit in better with neurotypical society, but this does not make them less autistic. Calling them “high-functioning” often makes it harder for them to get the support they need. Calling someone “low-functioning” when they fit in less well with neurotypical society is also hurtful. It focuses on a person’s perceived weaknesses, instead of their many strengths. Instead of ranking someone as more or less autistic, it’s best to acknowledge that all autistic people have different support needs at different times.
Myth: Autistic people are a “puzzle.”
Truth: You may have seen autism symbolized by a puzzle piece. However, many autistic people find this offensive symbol. Autistic people are not a mysterious puzzle, and autistic people do not need to be solved or cured. Many autistic people prefer a rainbow infinity symbol, which celebrates the many beautiful different ways a mind can work.
Myth: You should always say “person with autism” and never say “autistic person.”
Truth: You may have heard that it is more polite to use so-called “person-first language,” which emphasizes first that someone is human and second that they are autistic, ie “a person with autism.” Although this is well-intentioned, the majority of the autistic community prefer what is called “identify-first language,” ie “autistic person.” It can be hurtful to hear that someone needs to be reminded that an autistic person is still a person. That said, some autistic people do still prefer person-first language. You can always ask!
Bottom Line: Every Autistic Person Is Different!
More than anything, autistic people need respect and acceptance, just like anyone else. There’s a saying that goes, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you know one autistic person,” and it’s really true, because all autistic people are different. Another autistic librarian might have written this whole post differently! By seeking out books, articles, and blogs by autistic writers, you can learn more about a variety of autistic perspectives.
Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for Santa Clara County Library. All images in this post were created by the author in Canva.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group