Life on the Spectrum

Archive for July, 2012

I Have Asperger’s. Are You Scared of Me?

I am autistic. I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Are you scared of me yet?

I was diagnosed in my mid-30s after a lifetime of wondering, struggling, and questioning; a lifetime of not knowing why I found it so hard to make friends; a lifetime of depression and occasional thoughts of suicide. I wondered what was wrong with me. But I was never violent. I have never been violent. For anyone to suggest otherwise is something that I find insulting.

It seems to be quite common these days for armchair psychologists, especially those with TV shows on which they can spout their opinions, to “diagnose” mass killers with Asperger’s or autism, whether it’s the Norway shooter last year, the Colorado shooter this week or someone in the past who was a serial killer or mass murderer. Sometimes they are merely referred to as “loners,” but soon enough someone seizes on the word “loner” and replaces it with “autistic” or “Asperger’s,” because obviously, if you’re a loner you must be autistic. Never mind that these people who are being armchair-diagnosed might not even be loners at all. It’s very common for the media to make broad, sweeping pronouncements about suspects in crimes like this, only to be proven wrong — with much less publicity — later on.

I guess this means that one of these days I’m just going to get up off my chair, leave the computer and go shoot a bunch of people. Wait a minute; I don’t own a gun. Hm.

I live with three cats. (I hesitate to say that I “own” three cats.) One would think that if I were violent, the cats would be the first to suffer from it. After all, don’t serial killers get their start by hurting animals? So how do you explain that when I take my cats to the vet — and I do, on a regular basis — the vet has never found any signs of injury or trauma on them? Better yet, how do you explain that the cats show absolutely no signs of fear when they’re around me, that they are constantly occupying my lap and snuggling in bed with me at night? Granted, I do raise my voice sometimes when I’m upset, and they have been known to run away when I do that. But this is a way in which cats and autistic people are alike: neither of us likes loud noises.

Obviously I’m an evil, horrible person who has somehow brainwashed my cats into accepting my violent tendencies.

The fact is that autistic people, and people with other disabilities, are many times more likely to be victims of crime, especially violent crime, than to commit crime. An autistic person is much more likely to be murdered than to commit murder.

An autistic person is no more likely than a non-autistic person to commit a violent crime, but if one autistic person out of millions of autistic people in the world commits a crime, then obviously autism is to blame, because some talking head on TV who thinks he’s an expert on autism says so. Wouldn’t it be nice if people who didn’t know what they were talking about, didn’t talk about it?

I am a human being. I like to read. I like to write. I like to cuddle my cats. I like to spend time with my boyfriend. (By the way, he’s not afraid of me, either.) My favourite colour is purple. My best subject in school was English.

I also have Asperger’s. Are you scared of me?

Autism, Mental Illness, and Violence

After a mass shooting at a movie theatre in Colorado, United States, various media talking heads started speculating about what could have caused someone to commit an act like that. Blame was levelled at video games, violent movies, teaching evolution in schools, attacks on Judeo-Christian values, the National Rifle Association, mental illness, and autism.

Yes, autism.

A commentator for the MSNBC network, Joe Scarborough, who apparently thinks that having a son with an autism spectrum disorder makes him an expert on autism, said that the shooter was probably autistic. Autistic people walk among us every day, he pointed out, and even excel on college campuses, but they are “socially disconnected.” Apparently this causes autistic people to become mass murderers. I’m not sure how exactly he made a connection between being socially disconnected and being a mass murderer. To me he may as well have just said, “Blah blah blah, I’m an ignorant moron.”

To compound his ignorance, he also conflated autism with mental health problems, implying that autism is a mental illness. Autism is not a mental illness, but mentally ill people often suffer from similar stigma to autistic people. Both autistic people and mentally ill people have trouble with being stereotyped as violent or unstable or, in the case of autistic people, “retarded,” which causes problems in employment, housing, social services and interpersonal relationships. Who wants to hire, rent to or be friends with someone who could be violent — could even be a mass murderer?

I sometimes (not very often, fortunately) have outbursts or meltdowns in which I might yell, scream, or even jump up and down while yelling or screaming, quite literally. But I have never hurt anyone with my outbursts. My cats might hide while I’m screaming, but that’s because they don’t like the noise. They know I would never hurt them.

People who know me will know that I’m not going to hurt anyone, but someone who doesn’t know me but who knows I am autistic might be afraid that I’m going to hurt them because of these dangerous stereotypes that characterize autistic people as being violent. In the movie Adam, the protagonist, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, has such an outburst when he discovers his girlfriend, Beth, has lied to him. Beth says, “I was afraid you were going to hurt me.” Adam is astonished. He says he would never hurt Beth. But she doesn’t know that.

A teacher, social worker, counsellor or community support worker might not want to work with a person they are afraid is going to be violent, whether that person has a mental illness or an autism spectrum disorder. The person might need help with social skills training, housekeeping or other tasks of day-to-day living, but if the support worker is afraid that that person is going to be violent, will he or she be willing to provide that help?

There is an online petition asking Joe Scarborough to retract his statements. I don’t know if it will do any good, but it’s a start:

http://www.change.org/petitions/joe-scarborough-msnbc-retract-your-statements-about-autism-and-the-colorado-shooting

What is Normal?

I recently saw the movie Loving Lampposts: Living Autistic. The word “normal” was tossed around a lot in the movie. The question seemed to be: can an autistic person ever be normal?

My questions are: what is normal? Who defines it? What are the criteria? Who decides whether or not I am normal? Is being normal a good thing? Do I even want to be normal?

When I was part of the gay-lesbian community in the 1990s I often heard two expressions regarding normalcy. One was: “‘Normal’ is a setting on the washing machine,” and the other one was, “Heterosexuality isn’t normal. It’s just common.” I think those of us in the autism community can learn from the gay community when it comes to normality.

If you put the words “Normal is” into a Google search, you will get the following suggestions: “Normal is a setting on the dryer,” “Normal is boring,” “Normal is an illusion,” “Normal is overrated.” When I was a teenager it was common to see people sporting buttons that said, “Why be normal?” This makes it appear that perhaps normality is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Still, it doesn’t help with an actual definition of what normal is.

When someone uses the word “normal” as applied to autistic people, it’s usually in the context of the autistics not being normal, at least in the criteria of the person using the word. But really, I think that the word is meaningless. There isn’t a DSM categorization for “normal.” There isn’t a concrete list of characteristics that make someone normal. It’s normal for me to eat meat; it’s not normal for a vegetarian to eat meat. Does that mean the vegetarian is abnormal? If there are more meat-eaters than there are vegetarians, that means that being a meat-eater is more common than being a vegetarian, just like being heterosexual is more common than being homosexual, and being non-autistic is more common than being autistic. That doesn’t mean that the vegetarian, the gay person or the autistic person is abnormal.

For me, eating meat is normal. Being bisexual is normal. Wearing purple is normal. Using public transportation and not driving a car is normal. Loving cats is normal. Being autistic, for me, is normal. If I suddenly somehow started acting non-autistic it would mean I was acting in a way that is abnormal for me.

I guess that means that I am normal after all, whatever that means! What is normal for me is probably not normal for you, the reader, or for anyone else. But as long as my version of normal works for me, I’ll keep it.