As a parent and as a human, my first reaction to the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary was to keen and to roar with heartbreak. Mass murders of schoolchildren are The Unimaginable, they are What Should Never Happen, they are several leagues beyond horrifying. As more reports emerged, I wept along with President Obama for those children, those parents, those teachers, their families, their loved ones.
(Image: © Jim Mayer/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)
And then the speculation about Adam Lanza, the shooter, started. Speculation that he may have had Asperger's, been on the autism spectrum. An "expert" guest talking about Lanza and the tragedy on Piers Morgan's CNN show stated,
“Well, actually, a symptom of Asperger’s, and this is one report coming out which may or may not be true, is something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety.”
And that is when my broken heart exploded. Because instead of focusing on mourning along with the rest of the country, I had to shift into advocate mode, and start getting out factual information about autistic people like my son Leo before the world started blaming them and shunning them as murderers-in-waiting. And this is what I need you to know, and to share far and wide:
- There is no evidence linking autism and violence.
- Autistic people are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crimes.
My complicated dismay is shared by many folks in the autism communities, including self-advocate-led organizations like ASAN, GRASP, and Autism Rights Watch, and individuals like self-advocate and parent Paula Durbin-Westby, who writes,
"I just want to grieve without having to worry about a different set of children -- children who are growing up on the autism spectrum, or with atypical neurologies, with mental health conditions, who are not prone to violence by virtue of having these disabilities, but who could be negatively affected by assumptions that "all these people are dangerous" or even that "all these kids are going to grow up to be no good." (And, yes, I have had parents tell me that someone somewhere along the line has said just that to them about their child.) I would like to be able to grieve just as other parents all over America are doing, without the added baggage of the media's portrayal of Autistics as "dangerous loners" (or of "dangerous loners" as Autistics)."
I am raging, frankly, that the autism community has been put in this position -- in debunk mode -- when by rights we should be right alongside everyone else in supporting the victims, supporting the mourners, hugging our children, deciding how to talk with our families about tragedy and safety, applauding the president, talking actions to support gun control, and discussing better ways to support those with mental illness. Instead, we had to talk about why we and our children are Not Adam Lanza, as Emily Willingham demonstrates, both on her personal blog and on WNYC's The Takeaway:
"[My autistic son] knows about the Dec. 14 shootings in Connecticut. When he learned about them, his first response was to turn away in the chair where he was sitting, drooping his head over the back. He stayed that way for many long minutes, quiet and still. When he turned around again, my child who rarely, rarely cries, had tears in his eyes. And then, his first urgent concern: That we break from homeschooling and go get his brother, our youngest son and in first grade, from school ... now. And as we drove to the school to pick up his brother, whom I badly wanted to see and hug and hear, my oldest, autistic son voiced what I'd already decided: "Let's not tell him what happened. That's not something he needs to know. It would make him too anxious and scared." Perspective-taking and empathy, you see."
And for a brief interlude, and even though no autistic people themselves were quoted or cited, the media itself made steps toward dissociating Lanza's alleged Asperger's from his actions at Sandy Hook Elementary. Salon.com, ABC, and even USA Today started spreading the word that there is no clear link between autism and violence.
And then blogger Liza Long torpedoed that progress with her viral post I Am Adam Lanza's Mother, in which she described her unpredictably violent and possibly autistic son as a budding version of Newtown's mass murderer. My heart broke yet again, because as difficult as Liza's son's situation is, and as legitimate as his need is for more and better mental health -- for him and kids like him -- she publicly and virally humiliated and demonized a 13-year-old boy. Who can read, and use the Internet, I'm guessing.
Yes, those media outlets that reprinted her post under the headline "I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother" made serious errors in judgment. And yes, Liza has since issued a joint apology with one of her critics, saying in part, "We are interested in opening a serious conversation on what can be done for families in need. Let’s work together and make our country better." We do need to work together. We do need to support people and families in need. But Liza’s initial choice to publicly compare her own son to a mass murderer is a choice that she will have to work very hard and long to undo, if she can undo it at all.
So I want you to remember: One way you can help Liza's son, and kids like him, is to call out wrongful accusations whenever you see them. It is our culture's pervasive misinformation and stigma regarding autism and other atypical neurologies that makes the help Liza's son needs harder to get -- because stigma doesn't just compound prejudice and fear among the populace, it compounds it among lawmakers. Lawmakers being the ones who determine, at the root, the breadth and scope of services available to our children. And as we saw in the recent autism congressional hearing, lawmakers are generally underinformed about matters like autism, and susceptible to absorbing loud misinformation. If we want real change to happen -- to protect all our children, to guarantee all people who need mental support the best resources possible -- we have to start by helping the rest of our society understand that those needs are legitimate.
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