Why Is Autism So Scary?

Father and son playing together
CaiaImage/Getty Images

There are a zillion different types of diseases, disorders, and delays in the world.  Some are fairly benign, while others are downright terrifying. For many parents, autism ranks among the more frightening -- even though:

  • Autism is no threat to a child's overall health or life expectancy
  • Autism is not degenerative (it doesn't get worse over time)
  • Autism does not cause other disorders or illnesses (though it is associated with a few)
  • Autism is not contagious
  • The symptoms of autism, when treated appropriately, can often be minimized or at least managed
  • Many people with autism (though of course not all) lead full and happy lives

So... given all these positives, what's so scary about autism?

While there are no studies to cite on this subject, experience suggests that these are some of the reasons autism seems so scary to so many parents, grandparents, and others:

  1. Many of the symptoms of autism are outside others' experience. You can't just close your eyes, plug your ears, or sit in a wheelchair to get a sense of what it's like to be autistic. As a result, many people see autism as wholly "other," and people with autism (and almost any other mental illness or developmental disorder) as completely alien. Aliens, as we all know, are just about as scary to some folks as they could be (even if they're merely from another country!).
  1. The causes of autism are not well understood. In general, people like to feel that they can protect themselves and their children from illness and injury.  They use car seats, buy organic fruit, go to the doctor, and otherwise do everything they can to stay well.  But there's really very little anyone can do to avoid the risk of autism. Sure, you can avoid taking potentially harmful medications or drinking during pregnancy, and you can move away from plants that belch toxic fumes. But as most autism is of unknown cause, you may just wind up with an autistic child for no obvious reason at all.
  1. There is no treatment for autism that will "cure" the disorder. It's bad enough to have a bacterial infection, but at least you know that if you take antibiotics you'll almost certainly recover. But neither ABA nor special diets nor hyperbaric chambers will actually cure autism. A disorder without a cure (or even a treatment that will completely remediate the symptoms) is scary.
  2. Kids (and adults) with autism behave differently from other people. And if there's one thing experience has taught me, it's that any kind of difference -- no matter how trivial -- can be a cause for fear. Children with autism are taught to avoid "unexpected" responses to others -- not because they are in any way harmful, but because the "unexpected" (rocking, flapping, asking the wrong question, repeating the same words, etc.) frightens people.
  3. Parents and grandparents are often frightened by autism because they fear the worst for their child. They assume that their child will be left out, bullied, ignored, or even abused. They believe that after they die their child will be a helpless pawn in the world of government agencies. And they don't, in general, seem to believe that they can avoid this potential problem by planning for it.
  1. Some parents and grandparents are frightened by autism because they expect (or experience) negative judgments on their gene pool, their parenting, or their ability to discipline their child. These fears are reasonable: people ARE judgmental, and WILL make unwarranted assumptions. Whether this is cause enough for serious anxiety depends, of course, upon the person being judged and how the judgment is communicated.