10 Myths About Autism

As the number of Americans diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders climbs, so, too, does the number of questions surrounding this disorder. Namely, what is autism, and what is causing a rise in autism diagnoses among adults and children nationwide?

Click here to go to ABC News' On Call+ Autism page.

Amid these questions, television shows and magazines feature a barrage of stories and imagery -- families rallying for and against vaccines, debates between medical experts pointing to both genetic and environmental causes, and images of individuals diagnosed with autism who struggle to speak and function independently, while others can interact with others and are able to hold jobs. For many, these competing messages may make this already complex condition even more confusing.

Dr. Tim

Fortunately, doctors and researchers are learning more about the causes and characteristics of autism.

The following are answers to 10 common myths, that may help us better recognize the range of symptoms we call autism spectrum disorders.

Myth: Autism is an emotional or mental health disorder.

While physical or social behaviors of individuals with autism may suggest that they have a psychological disorder, autism is actually a biological illness that affects the brain's growth and development.

Dr. Tim Johnson

"In the case of autism, the parts of the brain that are most affected seem to impact three areas of functioning," said Michael Alessandri, executive director of the University of Miami's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. "Social behavior, communication and restricted and repetitive rituals and routines are ways that the child or the adult with autism interact with the environment."

Although autism is now understood to be a neurodevelopmental disorder, Alessandri, an expert for ABCNews.com's OnCall+ Autism section, said autism can still be considered a complex disorder because its range of symptoms is so diverse.

"Scientists and clinicians now understand that autism is not a singular entity, but rather, a variety of syndromes that ... create the autism spectrum disorders," said Alessandri.

Myth: There is an autism epidemic.

The word "epidemic" often implies a sudden burst in the number of individuals within a fixed time who have, in this case, autism.

Visit the OnCall+ Autism Center

Although the CDC reports that one out of 150 children born have an autism spectrum disorder, some experts are quick to question whether a surge in autism cases is actually occurring. Some are more likely to link the upshot of numbers to the combination of a broader definition of autism, a wider spectrum, and an earlier diagnosis.

"The condition has not become more widespread, but there is more diagnosis of autism," said Dr. Bob Marion, director of Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Sheila Wagner, assistant director of the Autism Center at Emory University in Atlanta, added that more awareness of symptoms has allowed more people to identify individuals who have autism.

"There's a lot of media exposure to autism, in television and movies," said Wagner. "This has made [autism] more recognizable in the lay population."

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