While school may be wrapping up, Summer is an ideal time to embark on transition assessment and services to ensure that your child’s IEP process is preparing them for learning, living, and working after their public education. The ultimate goal of transition assessment is to identify the necessary skills and services to ready a student age 13-21 for transitioning from high school to the next phase of life. To book an intake and consultation appointment, visit: www.nesca-newton.com/intake. Not sure if you need an assessment? You can schedule a one-hour parent/caregiver intake and consultation.

Busting a Common Autism Myth

By Miranda Milana, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

I often hear from parents and caregivers that their child has several friends and likes going to social events, leading them to wonder how they could have autism.

First, let’s take a look at what autism is:

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder classified by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction skills.

To meet criteria for an autism spectrum disorder, one must exhibit the following social communication deficits across multiple contexts:

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity—this may include feeling unsure or uncomfortable when approaching others, having difficulty initiating social interactions, or having difficulty responding appropriately when approached by others. When engaged in conversation with others, it may be difficult to engage in back-and-forth conversation and share interests/emotions.
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communication skills—examples include poor eye contact, poorly integrated gestures in conversation, reduced facial expressions, difficulty reading the facial expressions and gestures of others, and not picking up on subtle body language cues.
  3. Deficits initiating, maintaining, and understanding relationships—characterized by difficulties making new friends, not wanting to engage with peers in any capacity, or difficulties maintaining long lasting friendships.

One must also demonstrate evidence of at least two of the following: repetitive behaviors, inflexibility/rigidity, restricted and intense interests, and sensory sensitivities.

Next, let’s look at what autism isn’t:

While individuals with autism experience social challenges, it is a common misconception that having autism means not having any friends or social skills at all. Contrary to this popular misconception, I evaluate many children, adolescents, and adults who are on the autism spectrum, are socially motivated, and have numerous friendships.

It is important to remember that while a diagnosis of autism requires social communication deficits, that does not mean a complete lack of skills must be evident. For example, I see many individuals on the autism spectrum who have several longstanding friendships but have difficulty making new friends. Conversely, some individuals find that they initiate friendships well, but have difficulty maintaining friendships over time. It is also possible for an autistic individual to demonstrate appropriate eye contact and facial expressions but have difficulty reading subtle nonverbal cues of others. With high social motivation, it still may be challenging to know how to participate in social conversation, how to build on the interests of others, and how to respond to emotional reactions.

Individuals with high-functioning autism often get overlooked as they have learned to “mask” or “camouflage” really well. That is to say that they work hard to “fit in” or hide areas of vulnerability. It might not feel comfortable for them to participate in group conversations or to interpret nonliteral language. They may feel as though there are written social rules that everyone else has access to except for them. When observing them, it may appear as though they are social and well-integrated into social environments; however, they may report a vastly different internal experience.

Taken together, having an autism diagnosis does NOT mean there is a complete inability to form friendships or participate in social settings. Rather, aspects of social communication can be challenging and warrant supports and services designed to enhance these skills.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding your child’s social development, speak with your pediatrician and/or schedule an evaluation with one of our neuropsychologists at NESCA.


About the Author

Dr. Miranda Milana provides comprehensive evaluation services for children and adolescents with a wide range of concerns, including attention deficit disorders, communication disorders, intellectual disabilities, and learning disabilities. She particularly enjoys working with children and their families who have concerns regarding an autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Milana has received specialized training on the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).

Dr. Milana places great emphasis on adapting her approach to a child’s developmental level and providing a testing environment that is approachable and comfortable for them. She also values collaboration with families and outside providers to facilitate supports and services that are tailored to a child’s specific needs.

Before joining NESCA, Dr. Milana completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Developmental Medicine department, where she received extensive training in the administration of psychological and neuropsychological testing. She has also received assessment training from Beacon Assessment Center and The Brenner Center. Dr. Milana graduated with her B.A. from the University of New England and went on to receive her doctorate from William James College (WJC). She was a part of the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience (CFAR) program while at WJC. Her doctoral training also included therapeutic services across a variety of settings, including an elementary school, the Family Health Center of Worcester and at Roger Williams University.

Dr. Milana grew up in Maine and enjoys trips back home to see her family throughout the year. She currently resides in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with her husband and two golden retrievers. She also enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading, and cheering on the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics.​

To book an appointment with Dr. Miranda Milana or another expert NESCA neuropsychologist, please complete our Intake Form today. 

NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Plainville, and Hingham, Massachusetts; Londonderry, New Hampshire; the greater Burlington, Vermont region; and Brooklyn, New York (coaching services only) serving clients from infancy through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.