Life on the Spectrum

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:


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