Myth #1. Autism is severe mental retardation. The current understanding of autism is that it is a spectrum – thus the term Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Many of us remember a time when autism was synonymous with mental retardation. That is no longer the case, due in large part to a broadening of diagnostic criteria. All individuals on the autism spectrum have differences from their more typical peers in the following areas:
Individuals “on the spectrum” range from highly intelligent and competent in many areas to profoundly intellectually disabled and nonverbal. Some children and adults with autism have unusual intellectual or other abilities such as perfect pitch, mathematical skills, artistic abilities, yet still have difficulties with the most basic interpersonal interactions.
Myth #2: MMR causes autism. Perhaps the most damaging in terms of wasted resources and trust is the now defunct myth that the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine is a cause of autism. The idea was first proposed in a paper by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 in the journal Lancet. It has mercifully been “fully retracted from the published record” of the very same journal. One wonders what took them so long, after numerous large epidemiological studies around the world failed to find any link. There is no relationship between MMR vaccine and autism.
Myth #3. Mercury based preservatives in childhood vaccines cause autism. When the MMR theory started to fade, the assumption that something in vaccines must be responsible began to take told. The mercury based preservative thimerasol was eliminated from childhood vaccines in 2001, and in the intervening years, there has been no reduction in rates of the autistic spectrum disorders. The danger of this myth is that it led certain medical practitioners and parents to subject autistic children to “chelation therapies,” where chemical compounds are infused into the blood in order to extract the mercury from their bodies. A 5 year old boy died in Pennsylvania in 2005 from a cardiac arrest he suffered during a chelation attempt.
Myth #4. "Refrigerator Mothers." First proposed by a child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim in the 1960s, this cruel myth claimed that cold and distant mothers were responsible for their children’s autism, and that only by removing children from these mothers was there any chance for improvement. Decades of guilt and shame by mothers of children with autism ensued. This is one of the more poignant tragedies in the history of autism, and added to the isolation and hopelessness many parents, especially mothers, felt in that era.
Myth #5. Autism can be cured or children can “recover” from autism with a special diet or with treatments including high dose vitamins or enzymes. There is no evidence to support that children with autism will be cured or recover from special diets, the most popular one being the gluten-free casein-free diet, a diet which eliminates the wheat protein gluten and dairy protein casein. In fact, because children with autism often have unusual preferences in their choice of foods, eliminating two of the most common groups eaten by children in America has lead to cases of malnutrition and poor growth. Studies have been inconclusive and pediatricians do not recommend this diet as an autism treatment. Although the autistic disorders are generally considered lifelong conditions, many children with mild symptoms to begin with will make significant progress with intensive behavioral therapies, the only approach to date with evidence to support it. Some children, when evaluated after intensive intervention, may no longer meet diagnostic criteria for an ASD.
Dr. Eileen Costello, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center in Boston, and an Autism Fellow at Boston Medical Center. She is the co-author of "Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn't Fit In - When to Worry and When Not to Worry."