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Redefining Autism Beyond Stigma

Explore 'autism and stigma', shattering stereotypes, and empowering individuals through awareness and knowledge.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
May 29, 2024
11 min read
min read

Understanding Autism

Autism, often referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a complex neurological and developmental condition that affects a person's social interaction, communication skills, behaviors, and interests. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning its symptoms, abilities, and characteristics can present in a variety of combinations and degrees of severity.

Autism: An Overview

Autism is a lifelong condition that is typically recognized in early childhood. It affects an estimated 1 in 36 children and 1 in 45 adults in the United States today, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The condition is more commonly diagnosed in boys than in girls, with boys being diagnosed four times as often as girls. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that girls are less likely to have autism. Instead, research suggests that girls may have a more subtle presentation of symptoms, leading to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis.

Despite the prevalence of autism, there is still a significant lack of understanding of the condition among the general public. This often leads to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of health care, education, and opportunities for autistic individuals to engage and participate in their communities [2].

Autism Diagnosis and Symptoms

Autism is typically diagnosed through a two-stage process. The first stage involves general developmental screening during routine check-ups. The second stage involves a comprehensive evaluation that may include a team of specialists.

There is a wide range of symptoms associated with autism, which can vary greatly from person to person. Some common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with social interaction
  • Difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Repetitive behaviors or interests
  • Resistance to changes in routine

However, it's important to note that these symptoms can also be present in other conditions, and having these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean a person has autism. A proper diagnosis can only be made by a professional who is experienced in autism diagnosis.

Autistic adults often learn to "mask" or hide their symptoms, making it harder to get a diagnosis. This is particularly common among women and girls with autism, who may present less obvious symptoms compared to boys and men.

Understanding autism and its symptoms is the first step in addressing the stigma associated with the condition. By gaining a better understanding of autism, we can help to create a more inclusive and accepting society for all individuals on the spectrum.

The Stigma Surrounding Autism

A significant aspect of the reality of living with autism is the stigma that often comes with it. This stigma can have profound effects on both individuals with autism and their families, affecting their social interactions, access to services, and overall quality of life.

Effects of Stigma on Autistic Individuals

Autistic individuals frequently face stigma and discrimination, which can manifest as unjust deprivation of health care, education, and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities. This can lead to higher rates of unmet health-care needs compared to the general population and increased vulnerability during humanitarian emergencies due to inadequate knowledge and understanding of autism among health-care providers.

Autism-related behaviors that society may find uncomfortable, such as hitting, yelling, or disregarding social rules, can contribute to increased stigma. This is because autistic individuals often look like everyone else and often speak, making it harder for others to understand or accept their autism [3].

Stigma can also affect the everyday experiences of autistic people, reflecting in negative experiences like neurotypical people being less likely to want to live in the same building as autistic people or to spend time together as friends. This can further contribute to feelings of isolation and rejection.

Moreover, stigma can impact the mental and physical health of autistic individuals and even influence the behaviors they choose to present to society, with a consequential impact on mental health and identity.

Impact of Stigma on Families

The impact of autism-related stigma extends beyond the individual with autism to their families as well. Stigma may prevent families from seeking a diagnosis and services for their children, participating fully in their communities, and enjoying the same quality of life as their neighbors [3].

Stigma can also contribute to feelings of rejection and isolation among parents of autistic children and can prevent individuals with ASD from engaging with the healthcare system at all stages of life. The stigma surrounding autism is often exacerbated for many racial/ethnic minorities, and immigrant parents from certain cultures may not acknowledge that their children have developmental disabilities due to the associated stigma [5].

In conclusion, the stigma surrounding autism can have significant effects on both the individuals with autism and their families. It is crucial to address these issues to ensure equal opportunities and quality of life for all individuals, regardless of their neurological differences.

Autism in Different Genders

Autism affects individuals differently, and gender plays a significant role in how the condition manifests and is diagnosed. Understanding the differences between autism in boys and girls can help to shatter stereotypes and improve early diagnosis and intervention.

Autism in Boys

Research from the CDC indicates that boys get diagnosed with autism four times more often than girls. This is likely due to a combination of factors, including differences in how autism symptoms present in boys and girls and the societal expectations and biases that can influence diagnosis.

According to the 2019 Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth (CHSCY), 1 in 50 (or 2.0%) Canadian children and youth aged 1 to 17 years were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Just over half (53.7%) of children and youth with ASD were diagnosed before the age of five. The median age at diagnosis for ASD was 3.7 years.

Children and youth with ASD reported less optimal general and mental health compared to those without ASD. Only 59.3% of children and youth with ASD reported excellent/very good general health, compared to 89.5% of those without ASD. A notably lower percentage, 39.0% of children and youth with ASD reported excellent/very good mental health compared to 84.1% of those without ASD.

Autism in Girls

Girls, on the other hand, may exhibit a more subtle presentation of autism symptoms, fewer social and communication challenges, and fewer repetitive behaviors compared to boys, leading to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis. Their symptoms may go unnoticed by doctors [1].

This potential for underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis in girls can delay access to vital services and supports, leading to greater challenges down the road. It's crucial for health care providers and educators to understand the gender differences in autism presentation to ensure girls with autism receive the assistance they need.

The rates of autism diagnosis in boys versus girls highlight the need for increased awareness and understanding of autism in both genders. Breaking down the stereotypes and misconceptions that surround autism can help to ensure that all individuals with autism receive the support and care they need.

Addressing Misconceptions About Autism

Understanding autism and addressing the widespread misconceptions surrounding it is crucial in combating the stigma associated with this condition. This section will focus on debunking some common stereotypes associated with autism and clarifying the relationship between autism and intelligence.

Debunking Stereotypes

Stereotypes can create a distorted view of autism, contributing to the stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds this condition. Here are some common misconceptions debunked:

  1. Individuals with autism are all 'smart' or 'savants': This stereotype often stems from the media’s portrayal of individuals with autism. Movies like "Good Will Hunting" and "Rain Man" focus specifically on “savants,” giving the impression that all individuals with autism possess extraordinary talents or abilities. In reality, individuals with autism have a wide range of talents and abilities, just like anyone else.
  2. Asperger's is a separate disorder: As of 2013, Asperger’s is no longer recognized as an official disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5). Individuals simply fall within a range, or spectrum, of autism.
  3. Individuals with autism can't communicate or speak: While individuals with autism can have difficulties communicating, this does not mean they can’t communicate or speak. Those who are nonverbal may be so due to comorbidities or other disabilities present in an individual, not solely because of autism.
  4. Individuals with autism can't feel emotion: Individuals with autism experience all ranges of emotion, just like anyone else. Autism does not mean that someone cannot feel sad, happy, angry, frightened, or excited.

Autism and Intelligence

Another common misconception is that autism directly affects an individual's intelligence. This is not accurate. Just like in the general population, individuals with autism have a wide range of intelligence. Autism is diagnosed in highly intelligent individuals as well, and it does not directly affect an individual’s intelligence [7].

Understanding these misconceptions and the reality of autism is crucial in challenging the stigma surrounding autism. By fostering awareness and promoting accurate information, society can better support and understand individuals with autism and their families.

Navigating Healthcare and Autism

Navigating the healthcare system can pose unique challenges for individuals with autism and their families. These challenges can be magnified by the stigma associated with autism, further complicating the path to quality medical care.

Barriers to Medical Care

Various barriers can hinder access to and navigation of healthcare services for individuals with autism. Notably, concerns about discrimination can hinder medical care for autistic adults. Some are cautious about disclosing their autism diagnosis to healthcare providers due to fears that it might affect the quality of care they receive, as noted by SPARK for Autism.

Moreover, language barriers can complicate the process, especially for families whose first language isn't English. These families often encounter difficulties when communicating with physicians, accessing health services, and interpreting administrative forms [5].

Geographical location also plays a significant role. Families living outside metropolitan areas often have less access to care for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) than those in urban areas, often due to a shortage of specialists. This can result in service supply shortages, clinician burnout, and long wait times for diagnosis and treatment.

Role of Physician Knowledge

Physician knowledge and training play a crucial role in delivering quality care to autistic individuals. However, many individuals with ASD, their families, and even physicians have reported a lack of specialized knowledge required to screen, diagnose, and refer individuals with ASD [5].

Medical students have also reported not receiving sufficient training on treating autistic children, contributing to a gap in healthcare provision for this community. This lack of knowledge can lead to delays in diagnosis, inappropriate treatment recommendations, and further exacerbation of the stigma surrounding autism.

The issues surrounding autism and healthcare highlight the need for improved physician education and training, increased awareness and understanding of autism, and the implementation of strategies to overcome barriers to care for individuals with autism. By addressing these challenges, we can help ensure that all individuals with autism have access to the high-quality healthcare they deserve.

Coping with Autism Stigma

The stigma associated with autism can lead to a range of negative outcomes for both autistic individuals and their families. It can affect their social connections, mental and physical health, and overall well-being. However, understanding and addressing this stigma can help to reduce these negative effects and improve the quality of life for autistic individuals and their families.

Reducing Negative Attitudes

One of the first steps in combating the stigma associated with autism is to address and reduce negative attitudes. Autistic people often encounter negative experiences in their everyday lives that reflect autism stigma. For example, neurotypical people are less likely to want to live in the same building as autistic people or to spend time together as friends NCBI.

The shame and isolation experienced by autistic people and their families can be similar to that experienced by other marginalized groups, but autism has unique characteristics that have led to significant rejection. Autistic behaviors that society may find uncomfortable, such as hitting, yelling, or disregarding social rules, can contribute to increased stigma SPARK for Autism.

Autistic adults may experience self-stigma and believe society's message that they are somehow less worthy than others. Some try to hide their autism to avoid feeling ashamed, as they may perceive that "being me isn’t good enough." Stigma can also impact the image individuals have of themselves SPARK for Autism.

In order to reduce these negative attitudes, it’s vital to promote awareness and understanding of autism. This can be achieved through education, sharing of personal experiences, and promoting positive portrayals of autistic individuals in the media.

Enhancing Social Understanding

Enhancing social understanding is another key step in addressing the stigma associated with autism. Autistic people can experience loneliness and fewer friendships compared with neurotypical peers, have more difficulties with education and employment, and face high rates of bullying. These factors are associated with a reduced quality of life NCBI.

A study found that about 75% of children on the autism spectrum were left out of activities by other kids often or sometimes. Around 13% were physically bullied, and 37% were teased. The study highlighted that a child's autistic traits and disruptive behaviors played a significant role in how often people rejected the child, with more behaviors leading to increased isolation and exclusion of the family from friends, relatives, and social activities SPARK for Autism.

In order to enhance social understanding, it’s important to provide opportunities for interaction between autistic and neurotypical individuals. This can help to break down barriers, foster understanding, and reduce the isolation often experienced by autistic individuals. It’s also important to challenge stereotypes about autism and highlight the diverse experiences and strengths of autistic individuals. By promoting acceptance and understanding, we can help to reduce the stigma associated with autism and improve the lives of autistic individuals and their families.

The Financial Aspect of Autism

Autism is not just a psychological or social challenge but also brings with it significant financial implications. The costs associated with healthcare and the additional stress on families due to these expenditures can further exacerbate the stigma associated with autism.

Healthcare Costs for Autism

In the USA, healthcare costs for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are substantial and tend to increase as the individual ages. As per PubMed Central, the cost escalates from USD 6467 for children aged 0–5 years, to USD 9053 for those aged 6–17 years, and peaks at USD 13,580 for adults aged 18 years and older. These costs are even higher for individuals with co-occurring intellectual disability (ID).

Age Group Average Healthcare Cost (USD)
0–5 years 6467
6–17 years 9053
18+ years 13580

Moreover, ASD services are often excluded from insurance plans held by families with lower socioeconomic status (SES), making the financial burden even more challenging.

Financial Stress on Families

Beyond the substantial healthcare costs, families also face financial stress due to limited access to care, especially those living outside metropolitan areas. The shortage of specialists in these regions results in a service supply shortage, clinician burnout, and long wait times for diagnosis and treatment, which can lead to delayed interventions and further increase the costs [5].

Moreover, the experience of stigma can have an overarching impact on the well-being of autistic individuals and their families. This stigma can drive the behaviors that autistic people choose to present to society, impacting their mental health and identity [4].

Stigma can also contribute to feelings of rejection and isolation among parents of autistic children and can prevent individuals with ASD from engaging with the healthcare system at all stages of life. The stigma is often exacerbated for racial/ethnic minorities, and immigrant parents from certain cultures may not acknowledge their children's developmental disabilities due to the associated stigma.

Navigating the financial aspects of autism can be a daunting task. However, understanding these challenges and seeking appropriate support systems can make a significant difference in managing the overall impact of autism on families.

References

[1]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

[2]: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/autism-spectrum-disorders

[3]: https://sparkforautism.org/discover_article/stigma-autism/

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8992913/

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7993081/

[6]: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder-canadian-health-survey-children-youth-2019.html

[7]: https://www.autismlearningpartners.com/debunking-8-common-stereotypes-of-individuals-with-autism

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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