Myths About Autism

Experts set the record straight on four of the most common myths about autism spectrum disorder.

About 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder today, but despite its prevalence, this condition is not well understood. “Historically, we’ve seen confusion over autism for decades,” says Parents advisor Fred Volkmar, M.D., director of the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine. “It took the better part of a century for researchers to understand what autism is and is not, and a lot of those misconceptions still permeate our thinking today.” Here, we correct some of the most common myths and misconceptions about autism.

1: Autism is caused by vaccines.

TRUTH: There is no link between autism and vaccines. In 1998, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a paper that linked the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism and thereby created a kind of mass hysteria — a hysteria that was further perpetuated by celebrity moms such as Jenny McCarthy, who publically blamed vaccines for her son’s autism. But we can’t overstate this: “There is no link,” says Michael Rosenthal, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in autism at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “Every good study we have showed that there was no science behind this claim.”

In fact, Dr. Wakefield’s paper has been officially retracted and he lost his job and his medical license. Still, the vaccines-can-cause-autism myth has proven surprisingly durable: “I think it hangs around because parents are scared and desperate,” Dr. Rosenthal explains, noting that “there is also a timing issue because we first see signs of autism around the same time these vaccines are administered. But it’s simply a coincidence.” In fact, new research has pinpointed lack of eye contact as a warning sign of autism in babies as young as 2 months–before they’ve received most of their shots.

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