With the rise of social media, it is easy for information to get into the hands of people that cannot be verified or is simply untrue. Studies have shown that those who only receive their news from social media platforms are more likely to be misinformed on important topics. This happens because of how easy it is to spread misinformation, especially if it affirms our worldview. Social media also has false pages with the sole purpose of infiltrating false information into society.
While misinformation has been around for centuries, the ease of access to false information creates a challenge in terms of presenting accurate and verified research regarding various topics. This is especially the case as it relates to autism.
Individuals on the autism spectrum and their families have often been the recipients of misinformation campaigns for decades. Credible scientific research has debunked many pieces of misinformation regarding autism. However, because of the prevalence of social media misinformation about autism is always available. Misinformation and misconceptions based on poor understanding and theology have often plagued engagement between the church and the autism community.
There are three pieces of misinformation or myths that you can often hear in the church regarding autism.
Some have wrongly argued that vaccines created autism. It is a piece of misinformation that has been around since the 1990s. It is a reason why some families from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Those who believe vaccines cause autism based their opinions on the disproven work of known anti-vaccine advocate Andrew Wakefield. Scientific research has shown that Wakefield’s research was faulty and misguided, and the paper that published the work has since retracted the article.
However, that hasn’t stopped parents from spreading the belief that vaccines cause autism. This belief has produced harm within the autism community. Fear guides this misinformation effort regarding autism, and it creates distance and a lack of understanding instead of compassion and embrace. Anti-vaccination advocates have harmed the autism community by spreading their false beliefs, even though scientists have proved these beliefs to be wrong.
Another piece of misinformation is that autism is a product of poor parenting. It is the myth that autism, and behaviors associated with autism, can be corrected by better parenting. The belief here is that autism is nothing more than poor behaviors attributed to unruly children and unconcerned parenting. Unknowing individuals express this belief through the classic eye roll or a stern look towards the child or individual. In my experience, it also often manifested itself in the conversations of “you can whip the autism out of the child” or suggestions on reading a specific parenting book.
Autistic behaviors are not the result of poor parenting. It is more the case of a child or individual being overwhelmed by a situation or unawareness of typical social cues. At the same time, behaviors that we see as unruly may be how that individual is telling you that they are overwhelmed. They can also be their way of interacting in an activity.
One last piece of misinformation is that individuals with autism have a demon. This is a recent misinformation attempt and was, sadly, spread by a pastor. It has infiltrated itself within the fundamentalist wings of the church. The misinformation argument is that autism is fake and is a sign of demonic influence within that child or individual. This became prominent earlier this year when Tennessee fundamentalist pastor Greg Locke told his church that autism was not real. Locke claimed this because he could not find autism in the Bible.
Sadly, this argument is faulty and does a lot of harm. Locke is popular among fundamentalists. His false beliefs can hinder the acceptance and inclusion of autistic individuals in the church. As well, individuals on the spectrum and outside the church may have a hard time separating Locke’s false beliefs from true Christianity.
Lock’s misinformation falls within the same category of the church’s poor treatment of any individual with a mental health disability, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD. Instead of expressing the love of Christ with that individual, fundamentalist churches tend to turn their backs on the person and tell them to “pray it away.” While prayer is powerful and life-changing, this attitude looks down upon an individual and treats the person as an outcast instead of living a Christ-like way of embracing the person.
Misinformation is harmful. It creates separation between the church and marginalized communities. The church needs to recognize the misinformation that is within the church regarding autism, speak against it, and learn how to move a community forward towards embrace and acceptance.