The A Word

Autism causes kids to experience the world differently from the way most other kids do. Here's a guide to help you learn about this condition.

Myth 1

Vaccinations cause autism Kids getting diagnosed with ASD (which is what they call the group of disorders that range from Asperger’s Syndrome to autism) is on the increase around the world. Vaccination fears started in 1990 when one research study linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) to autism, but since then there have been a huge number of studies that found no link at all. The World Health Organisation did its own in-depth research and found overwhelming evidence that MMR wasn’t causing autism. Researchers think that better diagnosis and changes in what disorders are included as ASD are the main reasons for the increase, but they are looking for more answers.

Myth 2

Kids will outgrow autism It’s a common myth that autism is something that can vanish over time, but autism and other ASDs are not just childhood disorders. Some people with autism do relatively well, gaining quite a lot of independence, whereas others need lifelong specialised care. With the right kind of support, people with autism can learn to work with their unique strengths and challenges to varying degrees. Experts say that early, careful diagnosis offers kids the best opportunities for their future.

Myth 3

People with autism could talk if they wanted to Perhaps because people with autism look like everyone else, with no obvious physical disabilities, it can be easy to think that they are trapped in a world of their own and could talk normally if only they could find a way out. Robyn Young, from Autism New Zealand, explains that this is simply not the case. “Part of ASD,” she says, “is not being able to process the info that they receive and, therefore, not being able to give the expected response.” With the right support most children with autism can learn to communicate in some way, whether speaking, signing or using picture cards. In New Zealand, a simplified form of sign language and visual cards called Makaton is used a lot with children on the autism spectrum.

Myth 4

All people with autism are gifted and highly intelligent Movies often depict people with autism as quirky geniuses who are able to understand difficult mathematical equations or recite the alphabet backwards at age 2. The reality is that this savant ability is quite rare. All people with ASD are very different. In fact, ASD is the name used to describe a group of different disorders. People with ASD all share difficulties in their social interactions, communication and imagination. Children with ASD develop skills unevenly and might be very strong in one area and lagging far behind their peers in another. Strengths often come out of a special interest, like numbers, music, technology, or being able to memorise dates or facts. People with ASD can also be particularly good at paying attention to detail.

Myth 5

You can’t have a loving relationship with a person with autism It can be difficult to bond with a child who doesn’t like to be touched, avoids interacting with people and cannot easily express wants and needs. Families with children who have autism gradually discover different ways of interacting and expressing love. Recognising the uniqueness of every child and looking for how they can communicate love is important. Some children may even give hugs, make eye contact, or sit close to let you know you are special to them. Children with autism may seem to prefer being on their own, but this doesn’t mean they don’t want to interact with others and can’t have a loving relationship.

Myth 6

People with autism are dangerous and act strangely Behaviours such as hand flapping, pacing, yelling, singing or laughing inappropriately can be difficult to understand and frightening at times. Communication difficulties make it very hard for people with autism to express their feelings, wants and needs. Often situations, especially new people and places, are unpredictable, scary and overwhelming. Children who are covering their ears, flapping their hands, or having a tantrum, may be trying to say that they are not coping and need some help or time out. Although some behaviours can become quite severe if an individual is not provided with good support in childhood, the majority of people with ASD will never develop serious or dangerous behaviours. In fact, rather than committing crimes, people with ASD, sadly, have a higher chance of being victims of crimes. Possible signs of ASD (includes autism and Asperger’s Syndrome) There is no single feature that defines autism and all people with ASD are very different. To be diagnosed with an ASD, children will have difficulties in all three of the key areas: communication, social interaction, and imagination – all the time and in all situations. This is why a diagnosis of autism requires a team of specialists and many assessments. Children with autism or ASD may show a combination of some of the following behaviours:

Communication difficulties (verbal and non-verbal)

  • does not babble, point or make meaningful gestures by age 1
  • does not speak one word by 16 months
  • does not combine two words by age 2
  • speaks well but mainly uses phrases that are copied off a favourite TV show or book
  • does not respond to their own name
  • uses a sing-songy voice
  • begins to speak but then loses language

Social interaction

  • appears distant and struggles in social situations
  • seems to prefer their own company
  • does not understand facial expressions, gestures or tone of voice
  • poor eye contact
  • babies may be unresponsive to people, avoid eye contact or prefer to focus on objects
  • doesn’t smile
  • appears to develop normal social skills and then withdraws
  • Social imagination (not to be confused with creativity – some people with ASD are very artistic, musical or creative in some way)
  • Has repetitive thoughts and actions
  • excessively lines up toys or objects
  • doesn’t use pretend play like other children of the same age
  • doesn’t seem to know how to play with toys
  • finds new situations difficult or overwhelming
  • prefers strict routines and predictable situations
  • has no concept of danger

Other related characteristics

  • finds certain sounds, textures, tastes, etc, overly distressing
  • behaves in repetitive ways such as rocking or spinning
  • seems very sensitive to certain things such as touch or smells
  • may panic or look in pain
  • does not like or resists being cuddled
  • focuses intensely on one thing – for example, trains, plastic spoons, yellow objects
  • doesn’t seem to feel pain
  • at times seems not to be able to hear
There is no single feature that defines autism and all people with ASD are very different. If you have concerns about your child it is important to see a GP or contact specialists, such as Autism New Zealand, for advice. Autism New Zealand is a free service which offers advice, education, information and assistance to parents, grandparents, teachers and anyone with concerns or questions about ASD. Phone on 0800 AUTISM (288 476) or visit the website It’s a common myth that autism is something that can vanish over time, but autism and other ASDs are not just childhood disorders. Some people with autism do relatively well, gaining quite a lot of independence, whereas others need lifelong specialised care.  

Other useful websites

Autism Spectrum Disorder Information The Cloud 9 Children’s Foundation of New Zealand (Asperger’s Syndrome) By Kelly Eden-Calcott View full article
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