News reports coming out of Connecticut the last two days have reported over and over again that the man who shot 20 children and 7 adults in an elementary school had Asperger’s Syndrome or another autism spectrum disorder. While they are not coming right out and saying “Autism caused him to do it,” the fact that they are reporting that he was autistic or had another “personality disorder” is enough to suggest a correlation, or even causation, as well as perpetuating the myth that autism is a mental illness or personality disorder. The information they are using comes from a brother who had not seen the man in years; his high school classmates, 20-year-olds who probably bullied the shooter when he was in school and are at the age when many people think it’s perfectly okay to call people “retards”; and a “police official” who must remain anonymous because he is not allowed to talk about the investigation. None of these people are qualified to make an autism diagnosis.
I have been sharing many of these news articles on my Facebook page and my Twitter feed (drop me a note in the comments if you wish to follow me in either place), along with the contact information for the news outlets that publish them. I’ve been writing letters to these news outlets asking them to stop promoting the idea that autistic people are mass murderers and encouraging my autistic friends to do the same. We seem to be having some effect; there have been a few articles coming out that say specifically that autistic people are generally law-abiding citizens who do not commit planned acts of violence, though the articles also say that we are more prone than the general population to “violent outbursts.” Of course, they don’t actually explain what causes these outbursts: sensory overload, difficulty in communicating with neurotypical people, being ostracized by our peers, frustration at not being able to get our needs met, etc.
Since I’ve been posting and writing about this media coverage of autism and violence, some people have asked me why I must focus so much on the man who did the shooting instead of on the children who were killed. Why don’t I think about all those little kids, or do something for the families who lost their loved ones, instead of spending so much time concentrating on news reports about the shooter? Why do I care so much more about the shooter than about his victims?
Let’s get this straight. I do not “care about” the shooter. What I care about is the media coverage of the shooter, their insistence on prying into every little facet of his life to try to find a reason or motivation for his actions, and their leaping on the mere suggestion he may have had an autism spectrum disorder. I care about the effects of this media speculation on autistic people and their families, on me and my friends.
This may sound callous, but the children are dead. Nothing I can do will bring them back. There is nothing I can do for them or for their families. The families live thousands of miles away from me. Some media outlets have published contact information for the school where the shooting happened, but I don’t wish to contact them. They don’t know me. I’m a stranger from a place in Canada they may not even have heard of. I don’t want to intrude upon what should be their private grief that is already being exploited by the media and curiosity seekers and, even worse, by the Westboro Baptist Church.
However, if any of those families have members who are on the autism spectrum, then maybe I am doing something for them, even if they will never hear about it. I am trying to counter the misinformation being spread about autism by the media. It’s not unlikely that at least one or two of those families have an autistic family member, with autism diagnoses being so common today. I am sure that those autistic people, children or adults, do not want to hear that they have something in common with the murderer who took one of their loved ones.
It is quite likely that there are autistic children in Sandy Hook School, some of whom are probably among the survivors. I’m sure they don’t want to hear that the gunman who terrorized them and killed their classmates had a condition that they also have. What if their non-autistic classmates hear that the shooter was autistic, and they know that their classmates are autistic? Autistic children are already bullied; this will just make the bullying worse.
I encourage all of my readers, if you are autistic or have family members or friends who are autistic, to keep an eye on media reports of the school shooting and whether they mention autism. If they do, then dig out their contact information and write to them. Tell them that you are autistic, or you have autistic friends or family members, and that you are not violent and not a mass murderer. If the articles mention the “violent outbursts”, take a moment to explain what causes those outbursts. Try to keep your letter short — most newspapers have a maximum word count — and to the point.
I wrote a letter to the National Post, of the national newspapers in Canada. It will be published on Tuesday. The e-mail informing me that it will be published said, “Thank you for your brave letter.” I hope that there will be many more brave letters coming from the autism community.