Autism misconceptions

Whether it’s at school, work or in social settings, people with autism are often misunderstood.

They often suffer discrimination, intolerance and isolation, resulting in many feeling excluded from everyday society.

In an attempt to understand the reasons behind this, The National Autistic Society (NAS) commissioned research into levels of awareness and understanding of autism among the public. It published a report on its findings in June 2007.

Overall, the research shows that awareness of autism is high, but that there’s a lack of understanding about what it really means to live with the condition. This has a negative effect on people with autism and their families.

The research also shows that people think more positively once they know a person has autism. However, there’s a significant gap between those good intentions and the reality experienced by people living with the condition.

The main findings of the research are summarised below.

Awareness of autism is high, but awareness that Asperger syndrome is a form of autism is low.

Of those surveyed, 92% had heard of autism, but far fewer had heard of Asperger syndrome (just 48%). Asperger syndrome is mostly a hidden disability, meaning it is difficult to tell whether someone has the condition from their outward appearance.

While there are similarities with autism, people with Asperger syndrome have fewer problems with speaking and are often of average or above-average intelligence. They do not usually have the accompanying learning disabilities associated with autism, but may have specific learning difficulties. These can include dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or epilepsy.

Autism is much more common than people realise.

Respondents were asked how many people they think are affected by autism. The majority (90%) didn’t know how common it is.

There are more than half a million people with autism in the UK – the equivalent of 1 in every 100 people.

Autism awareness

  • 92% have heard of autism
  • 90% don’t know how common it is
  • Two in five know there is no cure
  • One in five think most people with autism have special abilities
  • Three-quarters don't know that Asperger syndrome is a form of autism

There’s a lack of awareness and understanding about some of the key characteristics of autism.

Many people correctly identified some of the key characteristics of autism, including difficulty communicating, difficulty making friends, a love of routine and obsessive behaviour.

However, some other common characteristics, such as the need for clear and unambiguous instructions, being disturbed by noise and touch, and having difficulty sleeping, were less well known. 10% of people thought autism was not a disability.

There’s a misconception that people with autism have special abilities.

More than a third of respondents (39%) thought most people with autism have special abilities, such as in maths or art. In fact, it’s estimated that just 1 in 200 people with autism has special abilities.

People wrongly believe autism mostly affects children.

More than a quarter (27%) of those who had heard of the condition mistakenly thought it mostly affects children. A child with autism grows up to be an adult with autism.

People don’t realise that there’s no cure for autism.

There was considerable confusion about whether autism can be cured. Much less than half (just 39%) were aware that there is no cure. Despite this, access to the right help and support can greatly enhance the lives of people with the condition.

A representative sample of more than 2,000 adults aged 16 and over was surveyed across 175 sites in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The report, called "Think differently about autism", can be viewed here.

Page last reviewed: 08/05/2014

Next review due: 08/05/2016


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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

sueinsussex said on 23 October 2013

Can I also add a plea for recognition of sensory issues and Pathological Demand Avoidance syndrome (PDA) which is part of the autistic spectrum but actually needs a different handling approach.

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midnightstar101 said on 07 March 2012

do you know who wrote this? i am planing on using some of the information in a thesis i am working on if you could let me know that would be amazing thank you.

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monkees4va said on 16 March 2010

Shocking statistics :S
I myself have aspergers syndrome, and my younger brother has autism. Although it seems most people understand what aspergers is when I tell them?

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User49132 said on 04 October 2008

i have lost count of the amount of people who say things like
"oh well, im sure he will grow out of it oneday" or
"i expect it will all be alright soon" (my sons now 21 years old , and we are still hearing that one!!)
as if it is something that can be cured with a dolop of medicine, if nothing else living with a young person with autism does tend to give you a wicked sense of humour!!!

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