Myth #1: You caused it.
Years ago, when early autism researchers probed its causes they quickly zeroed in on their suspected culprit: Parents. More specifically, they believed that emotionally closed-off "refrigerator moms" caused their children's autism. Thankfully, parents are no longer wrongly blamed for causing autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but that doesn't keep some from lingering over whether they -- or their genetic code -- somehow did something wrong.
"Because no one can tell us what caused our child’s autism (except that it is likely a combination of genetic predisposition and some unknown environmental factor), parents are left to wonder where in the family tree it came from," said Lynn Vigo, a family therapist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center and mother to a 19-year-old daughter with autism and intellectual disability.
The fact is that there is no single known cause of autism, and experts generally believe that there are several factors at play, both genetic and non-genetic. (Important: none of them are vaccines.) "One myth is that there is a single cause of autism ... one [specific] thing that has clearly changed in the world in the last 20 to 30 years resulting in more individuals with autism," said Catherine Rice, director of the Emory Autism Center. "It's much more complex than that."
Myth #2: The treatment options are clear...
There is no medicine that can "cure" autism, nor is there any one treatment that's been proven to be the most effective at managing its core symptoms. For parents, that means that a diagnosis is simply step one on a long journey to secure targeted support. Studies have shown, for example, that many parents lose out on significant income because of the time it takes them to help manage their child's care.
"What's really needed is a community of support for the individual, and for their family," Rice said.
Myth #3: ...and if you don't start early, it's too late.
Public health campaigns have worked hard to educate parents about the importance of early intervention, because it can make a fundamental difference in their lives, said Rice, who has worked on such efforts for the CDC.
However as a result, some individual families end up feeling unnecessary anxiety and stress that they didn't get their child a diagnosis early enough, and that they missed the boat on getting them meaningful help.
"I say, as early as you can is best, but it's never too late to start the support and services that somebody needs," Rice urged.
Myth #4: All parents have similar experiences.
There's a popular expression in autism parenting circles that if you know one child with autism ... you know one child with autism. The same goes for parents and parenting experiences, Vigo says. "I know parents who have more than one child with autism in their family," she said. "And they tell me they parent each child differently."
Well-meaning family and friends might try and generalize, or bring up so-and-so whose son has autism in order to provide some kind of help -- but maybe they shouldn't.
"When in doubt about how to provide meaningful help, ask the parent!" Vigo urged. "We love to talk about our kids, and are grateful for the support. We know our child better than anyone and can give guidance on relating to him or her."
Myth #5: It's always a challenge.
Yes, parenting a child with autism is hard and demanding. It's stressful. It can be emotionally and financially draining. But parents of children with autism love their sons and daughters. No one should assume that parenting a child with autism is a burden, or that these children do not bring their parents enormous joy.
"I love my daughter with every fiber of my being," Vigo said. "Because of her I’m a better parent, clinician, human being. She has taught me so much about what truly matters in life."
"Our kids work so hard and do their best under difficult circumstances," she continued, "and we are so proud of them!"