In these days of mass media, we all wince whenever the dreaded words “Breaking News” flashes across our TV or computer screens because we know somewhere there has been a tragedy, accident, disaster, attack, or some other dreadful event. And when we hear the words “shooter” and “school,” parts of us, that we thought already numb, are once again shocked as we hear of new losses and new sorrows. I suggest that those of us who are parents of children with special needs, particularly those of children who are on the spectrum, may have additional reactions that cause us to brace inwardly. In addition to the pain we feel for the victims of these shootings, we tense as we wait to hear more information about the shooters. Fairly quickly we begin to hear neighbors describing the alleged shooters as loners, bullied oddballs, or quirky kids who never could make eye contact. By the time the news pundits begin their evening television rounds of opining, we begin to hear the speculation that this shooter had Asperger’s syndrome or that shooter had autism. And as parents, we fear for our own children on the spectrum, not because we believe they are potential school yard shooters, but because we are afraid others will fear our children, who will become even further stigmatized. This fear was validated this week in an op ed in The New York Times by Dr. Andrew Solomon titled, “The Myth of the #‘Autistic Shooter,’” who cogently argues that linking autism with murder is leading to scapegoating of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
An ugly example highlighted by Dr. Solomon of this twisted blame game was a Facebook page horrifically titled, “Families Against Autistic Shooters.” Even though the page described persons on the spectrum as “soulless with dead eyes and as calculating killing machines with no regard for human life,” Facebook initially declined to remove the page which was decried as “hate speech” because no individuals were targeted. However, the page was taken down only after negative publicity increased and on online survey with close to 5,000 names was collected.
Similarly ugly postings appeared in the mass media after other mass shootings. One individual tweeted after Sandy Hook: “Try curing the real disease, Autism, not the N.R.A.” Another pundit on Piers Morgan Tonight unhelpfully contributed, “Something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition (autism) prone to serious depression and anxiety.” After the Colorado movie shooting, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC stated, “As soon as I heard about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society—it happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale.” Even though Scarborough, who is himself the parent of a child with Asperger’s apologized for and clarified his comments, the damage was unintentionally done.
We know that violence is not associated with autism. Dr. Catherine Lord, an autism expert from New York Presbyterian hospital, was quoted in The New York Times following the Sandy Hook shootings. Dr. Lord described the aggression associated with autism spectrum disorders as “almost never directed to people outside the family or immediate caregivers, is almost never planned, and almost never involves weapons. Each of these aspects of the current case (Sandy Hook) is more common in other populations than autism.” Similarly, Dr. Shahla Chehrazi-Raffle, a forensic clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of California, San Francisco, stated after another shooting: “Aggressive behavior or angry outbursts can occur, in cases where situations are misread. But this kind of behavior of accumulating guns, of planning how he’s going to kill other people, is not associated with Asperger’s.” The reality that I have seen numerous times is that people with ASD and others with disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of violence, exploitation and worse than be the perpetrators of any criminal acts. In this 24/7 news cycle full of quick and superficial answers we need to fight against these damaging characterizations starting with educating mainstream media.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current incidence of autism is 1 in 88 children—that’s a heck of a lot of kids to be stigmatized and demonized. And where does this current climate of blaming shooting violence on spectrum disorders leave these kids? According to Amy Harmon of The New York Times, autism advocates fear that persons on the spectrum may become increasingly reluctant to disclose their conditions to professors, employers and community members, thereby denying themselves access to accommodations and understanding. Adam Plank, the founder of WrongPlanet.net, a web site devoted to persons with spectrum disorders, stated: “When I tell someone I’m on the autism spectrum, there’s always a fear that they will judge me in a negative way because of it. Fortunately, people also think ‘Temple Grandin’ or even ‘Bill Gates’ and make that connection in their mind. I’d hate to have someone think ‘Adam Lanza.’” So how do we protect our children from being painted with such a broad brush? We continue to speak out very publicly about such wrong-headed news commentators when they make these damaging statements, and do our best to educate our schools and communities that persons on the autism spectrum are not dangerous.