Very soon after the horrific Newtown massacre, the killer’s brother was reported as saying that his sibling “is autistic, or has Asperger’s syndrome and a ‘personality disorder.” The first report I saw came from ABC news and it was quickly removed, but the damage was done and word spread quickly that the mass murderer had been autistic. With the pain still sharp in our collective consciousness and our society looking for explanations, people jumped on this as a reason, to some the reason, for his actions. Other news outlets picked up the item and it became a leading story among the reports on the tragedy.
ASAN and the Autism Society led the response from the autistic advocacy community, after brief debate among advocates as to whether or not we should wait, out of respect to the grieving families, before going public with our pleas to not make this about autism. ASAN decided not to wait and quickly issued a press release asking “media, government and community leaders to speak out against any effort to spuriously link the Autistic or broader disability community with violent crime.” The Autism Society published a statement pointing out that “There is absolutely no evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence. To imply or suggest that some linkage exists is wrong and is harmful to more than 1.5 million law abiding, non-violent and wonderful individuals who live with autism each day.” Autistic self-advocates and allies helped spread the word on their Facebook pages and in their individual communities.
Many people thought our timing was poor. They criticized us for not waiting to allow the victims’ families time to grieve without the distraction of other people begging not to be victimized as well. We were called disrespectful and selfish for thinking of our own community’s needs so soon after the shooting.
Sometimes there are no easy choices. If we had waited, if we had not offered any resistance to the “autistic mass murderer” images spreading across the country, would major news sources have followed their initial reports with information showing that autism is not connected with planned violence? These quick, insistent protests from the advocacy community are the reason that when someone googles “autism and violence,” they get a list of articles showing no correlation, rather than articles about an autistic killer. They are the reason that major media outlets followed up their initial reports with expert testimony that autism does not explain this murder.
Nationally and internationally, linking the crime with autism was listed as among the many mistakes the major news media made in its initial reporting of the tragedy. Information is getting out that autistic people are much more likely to be victims of violence than to commit it.
Even so, with emotions running high and people looking for a scapegoat, the misconception that autism made him do it is very much out there.
Actual experiences and statements:
• “So today, I’m at the Post Office, in line. A very talkative woman is talking about politics and closing Post Offices, with me (kind of) and the man in front of me (kind of). … Then, the conversation turns to gun control, and then, to the inevitable. Then, she says it: ‘Well, you know he had that condition that made him do it.’ And I say, ‘What condition is that?’ And she says, ‘You know, he had Aspergers. I work with people with Aspergers. They have a lot of compulsions and that’s what drove him to it.'”
• “Mom said we can’t hang out with Michael anymore because he has Asperger’s.”
• A comment on my post Autism does not cause murder: “It’s Autism and America needs to have a serious discussion about how to treat this disorder so we dont get these mass shootings!”
• “There’s a really, really weird teenager who attends my church. He has Asperger’s. Yesterday I reported his odd behavior to the police. It’s worth reporting this kid to the authorities now that I know how dangerous this disorder can be.”
• “Yeah well my cousin works with autistic kids and adults and she sais sic they’re violent ppl and copy everything they see on tv… these monsters need to be locked up… ALL OF THEM. Before this happens again…”
• “How do we keep your sister’s autistic kid from turning into a mass murderer? He threw a waffle at her yesterday. I’m concerned.”
• A Facebook page went up claiming that if it got a certain number of likes “we will find an Aspergers kid and set it on fire.” It was quickly removed by Facebook after many complaints.
• Karla herself received this comment at work after disclosing that she is autistic while explaining why she needs her earplugs: “Whoa, really? You mean like that kid that just killed everyone?!”
If the fallout is this bad even after such a quick response from autism advocates, imagine how much worse it would have been if we had waited to counter the hurtful and dangerous notion that any autistic person could become the next mass murderer.
My son is autistic. He has to go to school with people who may have heard that autistic people are dangerous. I’m worried for him, but also relieved to know that at least some of the people who heard that initial message will have also heard the evidence that it is not true.
We all grieve for the victims of the massacre and my heart breaks for their families. It doesn’t help them for us to sit back and let another group of people be further stigmatized and possibly victimized in a different way.
When you get a leak in a pipe, you plug it right away. There will still be some spillage, but if you act quickly enough, the water damage will be less than it would have been.
So: Selfish? Only if defending yourself against false accusations is selfish. Necessary? Absolutely yes.