Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Autism Community's Response to Planned Violence

I took down my prior entry about the post at Wrong Planet because it appears that the offending post was removed from the site and I don't want that person's words to live on at my site.  But the post, and the way it was mishandled by Wrong Planet, reminded me of the much more worse incident in Newtown and how the autism community responded to that.

I didn't write anything about the tragic incident in Newtown because there wasn't (and still isn't) much known about why Adam Lanza did what he did or whether his mental problems involved autism or not.  I also didn't write about it because the incident hit a little too close to home.  All three of my children are in a single elementary school and their autism would make all three sitting ducks if someone like Lanza showed up at their school.

So I did what any sane parent would do, I stuck my head in the ground and tried to ignore that the incident happened.  I saw the initial tentative link to autism, I saw the response from the ignorant public, and I was (for once) extremely glad that my children are disabled enough by their autism that the incident would pass by unnoticed for them.

But what I saw of the autism community's response to the incident before I started ignoring it bothered me almost as much as the initial incident.  Here you have a community who fights to get their disabled members accepted by society, who fights to break down the stigma associated with autism, and who tries to increase the general awareness of autism is and isn't and the almost universal response from this community was to throw people with other mental disorders under the bus.

The community could have taken this tragedy as an opportunity to talk about the desperate need for more services and supports for all adults with a disability.  The community could have talked about how there is a growing problem of young disabled adults who are utterly dependent on their parents for support and what impact the lack of supports has for these families.  But instead of doing that, the autism community instead tried to distance itself as much as possible from the incident and draw a clear distinction between people with autism and people with other mental conditions.

There were statements about how there is no scientific or systematic link between planned violence and autism which completely ignores the inconvenient fact that there isn't really a large association between most mental disorders and planned violence.  Yes, people who do these horrific things tend to have mental problems (or at least we like to pretend that is the case afterwards) but most (i.e. 99.9%) of people with mental problems don't commit acts like this.

But instead of working to get rid of the stigma associated with mental disorders in general, the autism community instead tried to separate autism from those other conditions.

These statements also ignore the inconvenient fact that the first wave of the autism tsunami is just now reaching adulthood and we really don't know what they are going to be like.  Regardless of why the number of people with autism has grown exponentially over the past twenty years, the fact remains that there are substantially more people with autism today than in the past.  So the people in the past who were diagnosed with autism may be quite different than those who are today and the research into what they are like might not be quite accurate.

Then there was a lot of pontificating about how autism is a developmental disorder and isn't a mental illness and while technically true, the point is rather moot.  I don't think it really matters whether a person never developed a certain mental facility or whether they had it and lost it to a disorder later in life, the important point is that the person doesn't have facility or ability you would expect them to.  So the goal here again was to separate people with autism from people with other mental conditions.

But perhaps the most disturbing statements were from adults who claimed to have autism themselves.  Maybe I am a victim of selective reading but I ran across numerous comments from high functioning adults with autism on all the major media outlets and many of them showed a complete lack of respect for people with mental disorders.

As one kind comment from an aspie on CNN said (I am paraphrasing here), autism is just a difference not some mental illness.  Those people with mental problems are sick and need drugs to help keep them from hurting other people.

The hypocrisy of advocating for acceptance for your own differences and problem while at the same time condemning other people for theirs blows my mind.

Or, in short, I was extremely disappointed that the autism community's almost universal response was to try and draw a line between autism and those other conditions.  The autism community talks a lot about acceptance of differences but, when it was presented a chance to live up to its principals, the community came up short.  Instead of standing up for people with all sorts of differences and working to build acceptance in general, the response instead was a divisive "its not us, its them; we're not like them".

Regardless, the overall point being made by the community is a valid one.  While there might be an association between autism and spontaneous, unintentional aggression, whether it be towards others or the person themselves, there is no known relationship between autism and sitting down and planning to commit a violent act.

But then there was the threat of planned violence posted on Wrong Planet and it made me wonder.  Maybe there isn't a direct link between autism and planned violence but I have to wonder whether there might be a link between social isolation and the willingness to commit horrific acts.

If that is true then that suggests that society as a whole needs to do a far better job at helping people with all sorts of disabilities feel connected and suggests that ideologies that do nothing but divide people rather than bring them together are far more harmful than I thought.

It will be, uhm, interesting (for lack of a better word) when and if we ever get a clearer picture of exactly what happened in Newtown and why Adam Lanza decided to do what he did.  I suspect that we have not heard the last of autism's involvement in the incident and, if little bits and pieces of what I have read are true, well, lets just say that won't be pretty.

At the very least, this incident should force this country to have a serious discussion on how people with mental health issues are treated and, just as importantly, on better gun control.  There is absolutely no reason why someone like Lanza should have had access to the arsenal that he took with him and, without a doubt, the death toll would have been much lower if he weren't so heavily armed.

Well, this has been a little too much reality for me, I think I need to go stick my head in the ground again and pretend that none of this ever happened.  I just hope that if autism gets dragged back into the mess that the community responds better than it did the first time.


  1. You speak truth. I feel no need to say anything more than that.

  2. I completely agree. I started to write a piece myself entitled "Thowing the Mentally Ill Under the Bus." I struggled with it for a while - the way you do when you know what you want to say but you can't find the correct way to express it - so I never finished it. Now I don't need to. You have perfectly written every point I wanted to make. Thank you!

  3. Amazing how when a person with severe autism who can't talk or defend themselves get abused but nobody is talking about the "evil" mindset of someone who would sadistically abuse an autistic person, or even a person with Asperger's (as we've seen also in media). Think about that. Here's a case where it's obvious we're seeing a sadistic monster eye poking his autistic patient, yet we're not talking about this nurse's mindset and calling into question all nurses, are we?

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