Expert panel dispels the many myths of Autism

A panel of autism experts at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have presented reports which comment on the assumptions about the developmental disability.

The experts, a psychologist, an epidemiologist, a psychiatrist and a physician, say that people with autism are more intelligent and able to function better than previously believed, but mistrust of doctors, biased tests and the Internet have meant myths abound regarding the condition.

Autism is a term used to describe a broad spectrum of symptoms, from an inability to use language normally, to exhibiting deeply disturbed and repetitive behaviors.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the condition affects anywhere between 1 in 500 and 1 in 166 children.

The panel presented studies showing that even autistics who do not speak can have above-average intelligence, and also offered additional studies disputing claims that vaccines can cause autism.

Morton Gernsbacher, a Vilas Research Professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the symposium's chair and organizer, cast doubt on the prevalent notion among autism researchers that autistic individuals lack a "theory of mind.

Gernsbacher says scientists must distinguish uninformed stereotypes from scientific reality and move beyond myths and misconceptions.

Dr. Judith Grether, an environmental epidemiologist who works for the state of California, contests the popular notion that North America is reeling from an autism epidemic.

Grether says a higher number of reported autism cases, possibly due to looser diagnostic criteria, does not necessarily translate into an actual rise in the overall number of cases.

According to Grether researchers in California have begun taking prenatal blood samples from pregnant women and will look for clues when and if some of their children are diagnosed with autism.

They are apparently examining hormones, heavy metals, immune system proteins and other factors.

Dr. Laurent Mottron, an autism researcher at Montreal's Hopital Riviere des Prairies believes the wrong intelligence tests are used to assess autistic children.

It seems many are tested using the Wechsler scale, a common IQ test that includes questions about words and concepts learned in school.

Mottron believes the Raven's Progressive Matrices test measures abstract reasoning and consistently gives autistic children higher scores, and is more appropriate.

The average boost in score is 30 points, and enough to put someone previously considered mentally retarded into the normal range and the average to gifted status.

This says Mottram, has important implications for the kind of therapies that autistic individuals receive.

Panelist Irving Gottesman, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota, disputes the idea circulating among some researchers that childhood vaccines potentially cause autism.

Gottesman refers to recent large-scale literature reviews which fail to support that link and says they may help ease the fears of parents that a vaccine-autism link has been covered up.

New studies are apparently focusing on genetic susceptibilities.

Gernsbacher who is the mother of a child with autism, says she would like scientists to become more skeptical of the stereotypes that flourish about autism and for members of society to become more skeptical of the myths that are circulated.

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