The Top Five Autism Myths

Monday, February 15, 2010 - 12:00 AM

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:

  • Communication: both verbal (use of words and language) and nonverbal (gestures, pointing, shrugging, nodding or shaking of the head, etc);
  • Social reciprocity: conversational give and take, eye contact, reading nonverbal cues, etc; and
  • Restricted interests and/or repetitive behaviors: ranging from special interests or areas of expertise like the Civil War or the Titanic, to hand flapping or spinning.

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."

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Comments [8]

Linda Herbert from Cape Town Somerset West

It is always the linguistics. When parents read information they will tend to believe the one that is easier "to take". Most people associated with autism does not say the MMR causes autism but that it COULD possibly play some role as the opposite has not conclusively been proved. Same for mercury .. and then to scare parents off using chelation. Chelation is a good option for any person who suffers from heavy metals not just children with autism.. That it must be done with the greatest of care and supervision stands to reason. AS for the diet, please come to our centre when the children has unfortunately eaten gluten or had dairy products... no research needed. Again it is the way that it is said.. .. most people will never say the diet is a cure but it most certainly aid us as therapists in getting the best out of the children as they are more focused, not in pain and can respond better.

Feb. 17 2010 01:35 AM
walt from Toronto, Ontario

Nice to see that the anti-vaccination loonies and health food shills are busy defending their turf once more.

Anti-vax people seem almost cultish in their inability to use reason and intellect, and instead trot out the same discarded arguments and discredited scientific papers.

Feb. 16 2010 01:02 PM
Tony Bateson from Oxford, UK.

If autism is not a profound mental retardation for most autistic people then I am a banana. Dr Costello should meet my daughter and thirty eight other autistic people she lives with and some of the two hundred autistic people I have met and then tell me that autism is not a severe mental retardation! During my spells as variously chairman (2 organisations) and vice chairman of a national organisation I have met high functioning autistic people (about ten of them) they are a small minority in a large body of seriously mentall disabled people. This is where the great increase in numbers is coming from not wider diagnostic processes.

Her analysis of the other so called myths is also hopelessly misinformed.

Please don't comment upon things you don't properly understand.

Tony Bateson

Feb. 16 2010 05:36 AM
AutismNewsBeat from Wisconsin

"It is a 100% unquestionable reality that improving the quality of one's food intake regime is beneficial to health."

Nobody is saying otherwise.

Feb. 15 2010 10:40 PM
Martin Matthews from San Francisco

"Studies have been inconclusive and pediatricians do not recommend this diet as an autism treatment."

Absolutely incorrect!

Feb. 15 2010 02:08 PM
Martin Matthews from San Francisco

Beware this misinformed advice!

Dr. Costello...are you condoning a random/haphazard diet for children with autism, over a calculated nutrition focused food intake regime?

Seriously...where are you coming from? Are you considering common sense and the unquestionable scientific and practical rationale for conscious food choices for children?

Children with autism (and ADHD and beyond) commonly exhibit less than optimal physical health - and YOU RECOMMEND that parents ignore consideration of food intake?

Your tacit "advice" is antithetical to the #1 most basic premises of medicine - "let food be thy medicine" and "do no harm." Do doubt, many parents will ignore food related symptoms and children will continue to needless suffer due to this ignorance.

Evidently, you're angry at the assertion that diet affects human health and healing. Sorry.

No one of any true integrity claims that diets "cure" autism, or that diets directly "recover" children from autism. Like most who don't believe in the human body, natural science, and who've been hurt by hoping, you choose to vilify the messengers.

Diet helps Autism - It is a 100% unquestionable reality that improving the quality of one's food intake regime is beneficial to health. If you question this, please e-mail me, as I'd like to interview you for my radio program.

The GFCF Diet is not "the" autism diet - it is by one of many dietary strategies applied for those with autism, and demonstrated to be helpful to children around the world. GFCF is not always the correct diet for one to follow however, there are other approaches, and strong rationale for these calculated food intake regimes. A qualified nutritionist can collaborate with primary care physicians and parents to help determine dietary strategies.

Diet for Autism means Paying Attention to food intake by making strategic additions and omissions to food intake. The scientific rationale for this is unquestionable.

That anyone, let alone an MD, would deter parents from considering the quality of diet for children (especially children of less than optimal health - most today) is regrettable.

Please use your credential to give SOUND ADVICE - i.e., every child should follow a nutrition centric diet that avoids problematic food substances - and, that children with autism have specific food intake requirements that affect their health. I.e. follow a special diet and do so with professional guidance.

Dr. Oz, your respected colleague, says "some of the most promising treatments for autism come from changing the foods that the child is eating."

"Nourishing Hope for Autism," explains in detail the scientific rationale for diet and nutrition intervention for children - a cursory review of its contents will inform you on this subject and you'll never again dissuade people from following their common sense.

Martin

Feb. 15 2010 01:30 PM
AutismNewsBeat from Wisconsin

The Neurotoxicology study that Healing News point us to was pulled last week by the journal's editor. Yes, it is good to see both sides, but at the end of the day the preponderance of the evidence clearly shows that vaccines do not cause autism.

Feb. 15 2010 01:24 PM
HealingNews from New Mexico

It's always good to see both sides before reaching a conclusion: http://www.healingnews.com/autism_mmr3_wakefield_research_1102142010.html

Feb. 15 2010 05:59 AM

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