“He Doesn’t Look Autistic” and Other Autism Misconceptions

This is a post in the new weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at AutismWonderland.

I remember the first time I starting questioning if Norrin had autism. We had just come back from our first visit with the developmental pediatrician and I immediately called my mother.

“What if it’s autism?” I asked.

“Norrin’s not like that,” my mother said.

And when I asked my husband, Joseph, if he thought Norrin could be autistic, Joseph said that Norrin was “just fine.”

Even I was doubtful because while Norrin wasn’t talking, I told myself that it couldn’t be autism because he was smart and  affectionate.

Before I became an “expert” the only frame of reference I had about autism was the 1988 movie Rain Man. (And I don’t think I’ve seen the movie in its entirety since I was fifteen.) We all had our own myths and misconceptions about autism.  And when Norrin was diagnosed we had no choice but to separate autism myth from autism reality.

In the last four years of Norrin’s diagnosis here are just a few autism myths and misconceptions I’ve heard and had to quickly debunk:

Is he like Rain Man? I think if I had to pick a favorite, the Rain Man/Savant myth would be it. People often ask me if Norrin has a “special talent” and I think they’re disappointed when I tell them Norrin is just as talented as any other six year old kid. All moms consider their kids to be a rock star genius, and I’m no different. But the reality is only a very small percentage of individuals with autism are considered savants. Don’t get me wrong, there is a small part of me that hopes Norrin could count cards well enough to be whisked off to Vegas.

Wow! He is really smart! This is something I hear a lot. And it’s often said with surprise. Especially from people who meet Norrin for the first time. Sometimes I find myself quizzing Norrin on things just to show off how much he really knows. I try to remember to cut people some slack on this one, because in the beginning I remember thinking that autism equated intellectual disability. Norrin taught me that autism doesn’t always impact cognitive ability. And he surprises me every day with how much he knows.

People with autism like being alone. This is tough because Norrin is often alone. I’ve learned that Norrin does best one on one. If we’re at the park and there’s one other kid, Norrin may engage in some sort of play. But if the playground is full of kids, he’ll opt to play alone. Socialization is Norrin’s biggest challenge, but I’ve seen him try. I’ve heard him ask for kids he knows. There are times when I’m in another room and he’ll come to find me. He’ll take me by the hand and ask me to read a story. It isn’t often that he invites me into his world, but when he does – I’m there. So many kids with autism want to make that social connection, they just need to be taught.

Autism is the result of bad parenting. I think this is the one that hurts parents most because it plays on the guilt every mom or dad feels following an autism diagnosis. This myth is based on Bruno Bettelheim‘s 1950s theory of the “cold mother” and that autism is caused by unloving mothers. When I think of all the autism parents I’ve met, I am just in awe of their dedication to their children. While there is no known cause for autism, it is an “invisible” disability. And for those who don’t know what autism is, when a child has a public meltdown – it is often the parent that is judged for their lack of control or parenting skill.

People with autism cannot express emotion or understand feelings. Norrin is extremely sensitive and has a full range of emotions. He can tell me if he’s happy, sad or angry but he can’t tell me why. And when he’s feeling sad or angry, he asks for a hug because he knows it will make him feel better. There have times when he’s seen me cry and he runs to get a tissue so he can dry my tears. If he thinks I’m sad, he’ll give me a hug or a kiss. If he sees I’m upset with him, he tries to straighten out my furrowed brows. And if he sees me laughing, he’ll ask for tickles so he can laugh too. Norrin may have difficulty expressing himself but he is understanding and aware of peoples feelings.

Are you sure he has autism? He looks so normal. Or sometimes people will say, “He has autism? I never would have guessed.” If I had a dime for every time I heard this I could take a cruise around the world. Autism doesn’t look like anything; there are no distinctive physical features. If you saw Norrin running around at the playground, he’d look like every other kid. After spending time with Norrin, you’d probably notice he’s a little different from a “typical” six year old but his smile alone wouldn’t give anything away.

Now it’s your turn – what autism myths and misconceptions have you had to debunk?

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  1. by Patty

    On August 15, 2012 at 10:44 am

    I’m not a parent but have read the blog of many mother’s with autistic children and one of the common themes is that your children thrive due to all your hard work. Each child has a different way of learning and interacting with others. I love how you feed knowledge to the world about autism and hopefully these misconceptions will someday lessen.

  2. by Chantilly Patiño (@biculturalmom)

    On August 15, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Excellent article Lisa. These are all great points and I didn’t know about Bruno Bettelheim‘s 1950s theory of the “cold mother,” but I am glad to learn about this so I can do some research on it.

    Thanks so much! Your posts always have an education element to them that helps teach others. ♥

  3. by Myrah - Coupon Mamacita

    On August 15, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Loved this article Lisa. Very informative and learned lots of things I wasn’t aware of. Thanks for always sharing your knowledge on autism.

  4. by Tammy

    On August 15, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    “All children act like that sometimes”, if I too had a dime for every time I’ve heard this I could follow you around the world! It’s often said during some behavior or if I’m explaining what Aspergers and Autism are. I think are trying to make us feel better but it is really frustrating and actually implies there’s nothing wrong, or we need different parenting skills…often leads in to the have you tried “this”, discipline. Please just give comfort to your friend and family and just be there, a hug or a simple nod goes a a long way:-)

  5. by Unknown Mami

    On August 15, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    I appreciate your perspective and insight on this always because you help people confront their preconceived notions about Autism that are not rooted in facts.

  6. by Bessy Reyes

    On August 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    I don’t have a child with autism bit a family friend doe and I’ve seen how much love she puts in to him and I admire her got it. I’ve also seen how much people who don’t know judge her for it and it’s really upsetting because they have no idea how hard she tries to control him but hes just not there yet ( he’s only 4!) but this article is beautiful and encouraging I’ll make sure to pass it on!

  7. by Kristin

    On August 16, 2012 at 7:38 am

    Great article Lisa! I’ve heard so many also, as I’m sure all parents of children on the spectrum have. Once a “friend” told me (in front of a group of random people at a party) that he had just read how letting your kid watch too much tv causes autism. And I could join you on that cruise if I got a dime for each time someone said “He can’t have autism, he just looked at me!”

    Lisa, this was another great article from you. Loving your weekly series. Thank you!

  8. by Aspergermoeder

    On August 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Great article! Some of the things you write also apply to adults.
    I’m an aspie myself and we strongly suspect our son has autism too. As long as we can make it together with the three of us, we choose not to get an official diagnosis. I try to teach my son the life skills he needs to have the life he wants and not necessarily the life society expects him to have.

  9. by Ellen Seidman

    On August 16, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Lisa, so well said. We deal with different misconceptions about Max’s cerebral palsy (note to self: write about them!), but I very much related to the “Wow! He’s really smart!” one. All together now: Keep calm and carry on!

  10. by Kim

    On August 17, 2012 at 8:37 am

    Tantrums may be frequently a parents fault in normal kids, but even then tantrums and melt downs just freaking happen sometimes. It can be anything from difficult communication skills to its 5 minutes past nap time. Parents shouldn’t be judged for it unless they are actively making things worse right then.
    And seriously, if a kid can have a tantrum, how on earth could they not be capable of expressing emotion? Hello! Anger and frustration count!

  11. by MarfMom

    On August 18, 2012 at 12:04 am

    Tammy, we get that one a LOT too! We also hear a lot of “he doesn’t look Autistic.” Argh. It gets frustrating trying to explain all the time, especially when it’s pretty clear they don’t actually want to be educated.

  12. by Kat

    On August 18, 2012 at 5:47 am

    Autism is overdiagnosed. It has become a socially accpetable term for bad behavior and and the results of poor parenting. Many of these children display symptoms of psychiatric problems and mental retardation. There is a stigma attached to both. It is hard to acknowledge that your child may have retardation or a personality disorder…but it is a disservice to your child to label these things as autism.

  13. by Tammy V.

    On August 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Kat, I am trying very hard not to have a knee jerk reaction to your comment which seems to me to be just exactly the negative attitude we parents, of what you would call “overdiagnosed” children with Autism, are combatting on a daily basis. I’m trying really hard because before my son and his diagnosis I too was far more judgemental and opinionated about subjects like this that (at that time) I knew very little if anything about. I would judge the parents of those kids screaming at the store and say things like, “if that were my child I’d never leave the house again before I’d subject other people to that”… NOW I realize that those parents are not necessarily to blame for poor parenting and discipline of their child. Those children are not necessarily just “naughty” and misbehaved. My son is one of the best things that has ever happened to me as a person because he has made me more tolerant and patient and understanding of others. To your “point” (if it can even be called that???), is every child accurately diagnosed with Autism? Perhaps not. However, not every child that exhibits the behaviors of a child with Autism is mentally retarded or suffering from psychiatric illness. It is because of narrow minded people who refuse to acknowledge the diagnosis of Autism, because it is the “diagnosis du jour”, that my son cannot obtain the treatments he needs because our insurance wont pay for it and we are financially unable to provide it ourselves. It is because of people who’s opinions, like yours, are totally unfounded that many parents (usually hard working, longsuffering moms) lose their jobs because they need to care for a child with Autism. I could go on and on about how uninformed and uneducated you clearly are on the reality of the subject. I sincerely suggest you volunteer in a support group for these wonderful kids and their families and learn first hand before judging or commenting further.

  14. by Tammy V.

    On August 18, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    On a much more positive note…. thank you for this wonderful article! :) It sounds like my little Danny-Man and your Max are VERY much alike. It is so difficult to “justify” to others (your boss, co-workers, friends, and family)your childs needs and your stress/exhaustion/personal needs when your child “doesn’t LOOK sick”… for a while there I was beginning to think it was just me! :) Even if it doesn’t change anything, it’s nice to feel comfort in numbers and know I’m not alone. Thanks

  15. by Dr Liz Matheis

    On August 19, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I love this blog post because it addresses the fact thatAutism doesn’t really have a ‘look. Each child is unique and has his own profile socially, behaviorally, sensory wise and emotionally.

    Parents of children with special needs get it but I don’t think others always do. Thank you for sharing this great blog!

  16. by Peru Delights

    On August 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    It’s true. People who don’t have a direct relationship with someone with autism, tend to know nothing about it. I include myself in this category. It’s great that blogs like this act like a window not only for people who are dealing with autism in their families, but also for outsiders like me, to make us more aware of it, and help us deal with it better when exposed to it.

  17. by Aaliyah

    On August 25, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Kat: You are such a hateful individual that there is no need for a reply to the likes of you…..

    Thank god for the good people out there!!

  18. by Middletownmom

    On September 2, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    As a mom of an 18 y/o Asperger boy, I get it!!! Boy do I! I have spent 15 years educating people, especially teachers, boy scout leaders and anyone else directly involved with my son. My own father would say “it must by YOU! why don’t we have these problems with the other grandchildren.”
    My biggest educational point to others is that there IS a BIG difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. In a nutshell; a tantrum is behavioral. A kid behaving badly usually because they are not getting what they want at that moment. a meltdown is neurological. It happens for a reason but not one that is obvious. It is NOT a controllable behavior. i.e. – toy store tantrum is a kid wanting a toy or needing a nap and the parent says “no”. A meltdown is likely caused by not being able to block out all the stimuli – the lights, colors, sounds, smells, excitement… It’s like having 5 kitchen appliances plugged into one non-surge protected outlet. It just can’t take everything at once!
    It is very difficult for parents and caregivers to tease out. There IS a reason, it’s up to US to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Bad behavior is most likely NOT a piece of the puzzle.

  19. by haeley

    On December 6, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    The misconception I have run into is that all autistic people are hypersensitive, that is over sensitive to things like touch, light, noise. Not always the case. With my son he is HYPOsensitive, less than normal sensitivity to sensory input, and sensory seeking. So he does not shy away from touch, loud noise, rough play etc. In fact he seeks it out. As a result he may appear not to be autistic in that he likes to cuddle, always puts a hand on his friend’s shoulders when sitting together, holds hands when walking with other children etc. He wants bear hugs and kisses and to be tickled. He also literally bounces off the walls and throws himself into furniture seeking input. Since this doesnt fit the stereotype I have had to explain it over and over again.

  20. by Anna

    On March 19, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    I’m autistic. People think I am illiterate, rude, noisy, and someone to be pitied. I am not! I’m in Advanced English, the neurotypical boys in my class are way more annoying than I am, and people accuse me of cheating (I don’t cheat.)

  21. by Autism Is Not A Punishment From God | To The Max

    On January 30, 2014 at 8:41 am

    [...] isn’t sick. In fact, he’s probably one of the healthiest kids I know. There are so many misconceptions about autism as it is. Some I can shrug off but autism as a “punishment from God” is beyond [...]