It wasn’t long ago when my son with autism spoke about his nonverbal classmates. “They can’t talk,” he said. Explaining in the best way he knew how, he went on to say that since he could talk, and was “no longer autism” (he’s never heard or used the word “autistic”), he could help his friends talk. “How can we help them have less autism?” he asked. His tone for questions is often rhetorical, and though I answered in the most thoughtful way I could, he had already made up his mind. To him, helping his friends talk was something we could go and do right away.
Of course, this is just one example of how caring he can be. But he’s so many other things. Loving, sensitive, empathetic, scared, smart, funny, insightful. You can’t sum him up in one word or way. He loves his classmates and they treat him with care and respect. But I’m wondering how the rest of the world will now treat him.
It’s been a week since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, and unconfirmed speculation that the shooter was “autistic-like” has already come at a steep price. Despite school administrators alerting staff to stay on the lookout for mistreatment towards those with autism, reports have come in of children being taunted and bullied, siblings being questioned and judged, and parents worried about sending their children to school. A Facebook group – now removed – was created with the stated goal of killing people with Asperger’s.
Not only are we left to process that day time and again to reach some sort of answer, comfort, or way to go back in time, we must also worry for our own children while wondering if our neighbors, friends, co-workers, and society will now fear them.
On top of the standard struggles you’d expect with a diagnosis that limits communication and function, the safety of children and adults with autism and Asperger’s was already well compromised before Sandy Hook. Sexual assault, physical abuse, and bullying have steadily increased over the last few years, while behaviors like elopement have claimed more lives in 2012 than the previous two years combined. Every week, we lose another child with autism. Kaleb, a five-year-old with autism, was killed Sunday after a hit and run. Melissa, an eleven-year-old with autism, died from severe abuse at the hands of her stepmother. Joey, a seven-year-old with autism, was one of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings. People with autism and Asperger’s are victims enough already.
For the sake of preventing future shootings, we as a country cannot afford to accept the most convenient answer. Multiple factors have to come into play for something like this to occur – the will, the way and the want, of sorts. A person would need to be physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of conceptualizing, planning, and executing a mass murder of this nature. They would need access to weapons that do the most amount of damage in the least amount of time. They would need the motivation to carry out a goal-directed attack. There is no one convenient answer, and it most certainly is not autism.
We also need to look at other shooters. The majority of the 41 school shooters studied by our own Federal government were “social” and had no history of violence. In their 54-page report, autism and Asperger’s aren’t mentioned at all. You’ll see the date December 14th for previous shooting sprees more than you’ll see anything related to these two diagnoses.
Then there are the facts about autism and Aspergers. As stated in this press release from the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, “There is no scientific evidence linking ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorders] with homicides or other violent crimes. In fact, studies of court records suggest that people with autism are less likely to engage in criminal behavior of any kind compared with the general population, and people with Asperger syndrome, specifically, are not convicted of crimes at higher rates than the general population.”
Even so, the suggestion that autism and Asperger’s equals premeditated violence has taken hold. It’s a world-is-flat claim to those who know and understand these diagnoses, and no more relevant than the shooter having long hair. But this unconfirmed report, served up by the media like fast food in a drive-thru, seems to have become truth by perception.
Will we let it continue?
During this time of year, the National Autism Association would normally ask for your donation, but your kindness would be more valuable. Take a moment over this holiday season to offer a kind word to a family affected by autism or Asperger’s, or say a kind word about affected individuals.
Trust me, one kind word will go a long way.