We are not like this

Today I was going to post something light-hearted and silly, but that no longer seems appropriate. As I’m sure you know, on Friday there was a terrible mass shooting at an elementary school in Newton, CT. My heart aches for the victims, for their families, for everyone who was at the school at the time. For everyone who was is or now scared. It’s heart breaking, and the aching and sadness I feel is both overwhelming and hard to express.

As I read the updating news reports, I found myself wondering how long it would take before someone speculated that he had some form of autism, as it seems to be the thing people do now.

Sadly, it did not take very long at all. A snippet from a fox news article:

Ryan Lanza, 24, brother of  gunman Adam Lanza, 20, tells authorities that his younger brother is autistic, or has Asperger syndrome and a “personality disorder.”  Neighbors described the younger man to ABC as “odd” and displaying characteristics associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

And if you’re inclined to dismiss it because it’s coming from fox, I have bad news for you. This particular snippet is being repeated, more or less verbatim, all over the internet, from many different news outlets. I honestly have no idea what the original source was.

Personally, I don’t know if he was autistic or not. I don’t know if he was on the spectrum, or if he had a personality disorder or OCD or anything. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. Thing is, though, it does not actually matter if he did or didn’t. It’s irrelevant. The shooter committed a terrible crime, hurting many people. I do not know why he did it, but to blame it on autism is to tar an entire group of largely innocent people.

I have found a number of quotations by people demonizing everyone on the spectrum, or everyone with mental illness. I thought about quoting them here, but honestly, it’s too upsetting for me. Suffice to say there are far too many people claiming that there is a link between autism and violent behavior, and that no one on the spectrum, or with any kind of mental illness, should be allowed access to firearms, that everyone with mental illness should simply be locked away and other such things.

One I will quote came from a supposed expert talking about autism:

Amador, in discussing the possible role of mental illness in this tragedy, pivoted to Lanza’s alleged autism. “With his autism, his roommate Alex Israel mentioned that he chose not to… he preferred to stay alone,” Amador began, referencing an earlier segment with a longtime classmate of Lanza’s. “Well, actually, a symptom of Asperger’s, and this is one report coming out which may or may not be true, is something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety.”

Here I am, aching for everyone who was hurt by this criminal, and yet here we have people claiming that I cannot experience empathy. I can, and do, experience empathy. I may not experience it the way everyone else does, and I definitely do not express it in the commonly accepted ways, but that does not mean that I lack it entirely. That “something is missing in [my] brain.” To say so is an insult, is wrong, and is entirely inappropriate in the wake of such a tragedy.

A diary of a mom wrote an eloquent post on empathy and autism on Friday morning, and on Friday afternoon wrote another post about what happens when people demonize those on the autism spectrum:

My post this morning about how dangerous it is to allow society to dehumanize our children? To allow the misperception that because they don’t necessarily express empathy in the way that we expect to see it then it must not exist to stand unchallenged?
Here it is, my friends.
This is the result.
Our children — our beautiful, delicious, and yes, challenged children — are something to be afraid of.

The real point I want to make, though, and I really hope I have not taken too long to make it, is that any supposed link between autism and/or mental illness and violence is simply false. It’s terrible misinformation, damaging to everyone (not just us autistic people, I really mean everyone), and it hurts me personally to see it.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) released a statement on the subject, here is just a snippet:

Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.

To back up ASAN, I found a blog post with some stats on crime and mental illness, which again I am not going to quote here as I find them distressing. Still, it is worth a look if you’re interested.

I also found a scholarly study on the topic, which found:

based on the low number of violent patients with Apserger syndrome estimated on the basis of the above studies and the relatively common occurrence of violence in the general population, we do not believe that any true association exists between the two conditions.

Also in the study, the rates of violent behavior they found ranged from only 2.27-5.58% for individuals with Asperger Syndrome. Importantly, the rates for the general population range from 6-7%. Which means if anything, we aspies are LESS likely to be violent than the general population, not more. Yet people continue to perpetuate the idea that people should be scared of us. That we are violent and dangerous and should not be let out in polite society.

Finally, even if we broaden this beyond autism into illnesses that are, in fact, linked to violence, it’s still wrong. Maia Szalavitz put it really well in her article here:

And yet most mentally ill people — even those with conditions that have been linked to violence, such as addictions and schizophrenia — are no threat to anyone other than themselves.

the majority of people with schizophrenia (about 1% of the population) never commit acts of violence.

Schizophrenia doubles your odds of becoming violent, but being a man multiplies your risk by a factor of nine. Yet we don’t stigmatize or reject men for this risk factor; similarly, we shouldn’t treat the mentally ill that way.

No, we really shouldn’t treat the mentally ill that way. Yet all too often, we do.


Filed under boogeymen, issue

5 responses to “We are not like this

  1. jess

    Amen. And thank you.

  2. Tricia

    “Schizophrenia doubles your odds of becoming violent, but being a man multiplies your risk by a factor of nine.”

    Yes, exactly. This is what I was thinking off all through your post. If people are going to make these grand assumptions and generalizations, let’s go with one that actually holds up to the statistics. (Not that I think they should go with this angle – it becomes a crutch for the media whenever they can compartmentalize a type of behavior.)

  3. Very well said. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  4. Pingback: Demonization | Aspergers and Me

  5. Jenny

    I wonder a fair bit about this issue. I truly wish that there were honesty and clarity with the statistics and studies done.
    Some things I have read have made me question statistics that show people who have a mental illness are not at greater risk of being violent. It does not at all please me to consider it.
    I found one study that gave fairly positive but not probably in the eyes of the generally paranoid majority. It showed that child abuse and drug use are the biggest causal factors in an adult being violent. Being mentally ill alone did not compare. It didn’t test for untreated mentally ill persons, or mentally ill and male.

    Overall I am personally affronted by such prejudice. People actually often seem to suffer from assuming the absolute worst as soon as some poor soul gets stuck with the label “mentally ill”. It can even be that if you appear a bit more troubled than an individual who also has a mental illness, that they then project all their worst fears about themselves onto you – as has happened for me. I get treated as if I am a psychotic who could pull a knife any moment by a particular woman I knew since childhood, purely (and it annoys me so to have to feel like I must justify my self!!!) because I have dealt with anxiety problems for years …and said prejudiced person herself suffers from depression!!! ….but hey: imagine the worst about me, whilst apparently you yourself are exempt from the same paranoid prejudice.