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Debunking Myths of Living on the Spectrum: A Conversation with Dr. Susan Hildenbrand

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

By Amanda Gonzalez Garcia

Netflix original series "Atypical" centers on an 18-year-old Sam Gardner who loves Antarctica, penguins and lives on the autism spectrum yet defies the expectations of those living with his condition.

Photo Credit to Pexels

ASD also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental condition that challenges social and communication skills of the individual. Some individuals on the spectrum need more help than others but society has chosen to assign the trait of “helplessness” across the board.

In recent years, there have been a growing number of new shows that have tried depicting individuals with ASD all with different accuracy degrees.

"Atypical," created and written by Robia Rashid under the production of Academy Award winner Seth Rogen, received some negative feedback from the autism community due to the absence of actors with ASD and Sam’s neurotypical status.

Here is a note from the American Journal of Psychiatry about the show.

“Atypical is noteworthy because it endeavors to convey more thoughtful representations of individuals with ASD by incorporating voices from the autism community and bringing additional actors, consultants, and a playwright with ASD into the production.”

The month of April is Autism Awareness Month; thus, faculty member of the Adrian Dominican School of Education and Barry University alumna, Dr. Susan Hildenbrand, sat down with The Buccaneer to share some common myths associated with individuals living with ASD.

Myth: “The cause of ASD lies in childhood vaccines.”

Dr. Hildenbrand: For years, research has shown that childhood vaccinations are definitely not the cause of ASD. The misinformed belief that this is the case has caused many parents to refuse to vaccinate their children, putting them and those around them at great risk for the diseases prevented by those vaccines.

Myth: “ASD is an epidemic.”

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Dr. Hildenbrand: The number of individuals diagnosed with ASD has increased rather dramatically over time, but that is not because ASD, itself, is an epidemic. While ASD characteristics have been observed in individuals far back in history, it is only since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that education and resources were legally mandated for individuals with ASD, resulting in greater awareness about it. With this awareness came more recognition of the symptoms and signs of ASD, both by parents and medical professionals. Thus, more individuals are now being diagnosed with ASD. Additionally, the actual medical definitions of ASD have changed over time, allowing additional people to be included in the current broader definitions.

Myth: “Bad parenting causes ASD.”

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Dr. Hildenbrand: While some individuals may still cling to this old wives' tale, this idea has been debunked. Back in the 1950s, there was a theory entitled the “refrigerator mother hypothesis” which insisted that autism was caused by mothers who were emotionally cold. This theory has been researched and proven untrue.

Myth: “Individuals with ASD have severe learning problems and will never be able to live independently or have a decent job.”

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Dr. Hildenbrand: Children with ASD can learn, but many teachers have not learned how to meet their actual learning needs. For some of these students, learning may be slow and potentially difficult, but with persistence and when instructed with the correct set of learning strategies for that individual, progress can be made. Also, consider individuals falling into the “high performing” group...some of these individuals may have extremely high IQs and will thrive in the business world or in other fields. Individuals include Dan Aykroyd, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Steven Spielberg, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Carl Jung, Lionel Messi, Charles Schulz, George Bernard Shaw, and Greta Thunberg.

Myth: “Individuals with ASD do not have or experience emotions.”

Photo Credit to FirstCry Parenting

Dr. Hildenbrand: While individuals with ASD do have emotions just like everyone else, some of these individuals may be challenged in being able to communicate these feelings to others. Likewise, some individuals with ASD may struggle to interpret the facial expressions and body language of other people, thus not being adept at interpreting their emotions and feelings.

Under the diagnosis of ASD, there are now several conditions that are all diagnosed separately.

Dr. Hildenbrand refers to it as an umbrella disorder that is comprised of a few disorders that used to be diagnosed separately: “autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome.”

No person with ASD is alike.

“In other words, they are much like any other person in the world...unique and special,” said Hildenbrand.

Some difficulties that may arise are trouble relating with others, repetition of actions, unusual reactions to smell, taste, look, and/or sound amongst others.

While there is no cure for ASD, early diagnosing can help aid and improve a child’s development for instance.

Photo Credit to Pexels

“If diagnosed early enough, early intervention therapies can assist children in meeting their developmental goals sooner, and some behavioral therapies may assist individuals with better coping with behaviors associated with the disorder,” said Hildenbrand. “Once diagnosed with ASD, the person will not outgrow it or cure it. It lasts a lifetime."

Individuals living on the spectrum are more than able to live happy and meaningful lives if they are given the opportunities and support to push forward.

While World Autism Awareness Day lands on April 2, it is really a day of celebration all year round.

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