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Sunday, February 13, 2022

Public Knowledge of Autism

In The Politics of Autism, I write:  "Support from the general public will be an important political asset for autistic people.

At Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Megan E. Golson and colleagues have an article titled "Current state of autism knowledge in the general population of the United States."  The abstract:


The increasing prevalence of autism warrants increased knowledge for laypersons who engage with autistic individuals . However, limited research has been conducted on the general population’s knowledge of autism.


The present study describes the current level of autism knowledge among a general population sample in the United States (N = 318) using the Autism Spectrum Knowledge Scale, General Population version (ASKSG; McClain et al., 2019).


Participants in our study were more knowledgeable about the symptoms and behaviors associated with autism than the etiology, prevalence, and assessment procedures.


The lack of knowledge in the general population surrounding autism necessitates further efforts to increase public awareness.

From the study:

Overall, participants answered an average proportion of .643 (SD = .186) of items correctly on the ASKSG. Participant knowledge was evaluated in terms of content area. Regarding knowledge of autism etiology and prevalence, most participants correctly identified that a lack of motherly warmth was not a cause of autism (.858). However, few participants knew that there are racial/ethnic disparities in autism identification (.362). Concerningly, nearly a third (.296) endorsed the myth that vaccines cause autism. Related to autism services, most participants correctly identified that social skills interventions were an evidence-based service (.830). Less than half of participants knew that restrictive diets are not an evidence-based intervention for autism (.481).
The results of this study have multiple implications related to autism identification, services, advocacy, and public policy. These findings highlight multiple areas of need within the general population. First, many participants endorsed misconceptions about the causes (e.g., vaccine etiology) and research-supported services (e.g., restrictive diets) for autism. Continued belief in the vaccine myth is concerning as it directs research resources toward redundant research affirming the lack of connection between vaccinations and autism (Dudley et al., 2018) and may contribute to lower rates of vaccination, which threatens personal and public health (Żuk et al., 2019). Misconceptions about autism services are also concerning. This may result in families wasting money on ineffective interventions instead of available, efficacious services. Lack of knowledge about autism diagnosis and identification may contribute to delays in age of diagnosis (Maenner et al., 2020). Increased autism screening, parent psychoeducation, and communication between primary care providers and parents are crucial to addressing this knowledge gap and decreasing age of diagnosis.

Second, while the general population exhibits adequate knowledge of common symptoms associated with autism, knowledge of assessment and diagnostic procedures is limited. Increased public knowledge regarding this process could increase access to early identification services. Public institutions (e.g., schools, community centers) and clinics should prioritize public awareness campaigns to address knowledge gaps. Including fliers in central locations, holding informational sessions, and playing autism knowledge videos (e.g., Ha et al., 2021) can help toward this effort. Efforts to increase the accessibility of autism services (e.g., regular autism screening, training of rural providers in autism) may also increase the awareness of these processes in the general population.