Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sandy Hook - my thoughts as an autism mom...

I was on set last Friday shooting a commercial when someone said there had been a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.
An elementary school.  Babies.  Kids around the ages of my children. 
A little later, reports started coming in that there were children among the deceased.  Lots of children.
Anyone who follows me on social media (Facebook, Twitter) knows that I'm usually in-the-know on the latest happenings and current events.  But last Friday, sitting in a trailer in East Dallas with a dead cellphone battery and no computer, I had to rely on word-of-mouth for updates on the tragedy.  I found myself chatting with the other actors about our family and kids.  When I talked about Will and Bryn, my mind would start thinking about the Connecticut children.  Those babies.
When we wrapped that evening, I hopped in my car grateful for satellite radio - I'd been listening to Headline News that morning so news of the tragedy filled my car immediately.  No fidgeting for the right station.
At least 20 dead.  Babies.  The ages of the children had not been released yet, but reports were that the babies were in kindergarten and first grade, not much younger than Will and a year or two older than Bryn.  I started sobbing and was instantly grateful for my limited access to the news all day (crying on set wouldn't have been a good look).  My company's Christmas party was Friday night - I had to pull myself together and celebrate the season with my colleagues.  But those babies. 
Ryan and I sat on the couch watching CNN for a while after we got home that evening.  The number of deceased was 27 - 20 children, 7 adults including the shooter Adam Lanza.  That is the one time you will read his name in this blog - I will hereafter refer to him as the killer as he doesn't deserve further mention.  But the media mentioned his name - a lot.  And they began to mention something else.  Media outlet after media outlet began reporting that the killer was reportedly mentally ill and that his brother had described him as having autism OR Asperger's.  For those of you who don't know, Asperger's Syndrome is described as a high-functioning, mild form of autism. I found it curious that his brother said it was autism OR Asperger's, as if the two are independent.  Wouldn't the brother know if his brother had autism?
I immediately took to social media - I felt an urgent and strong need to defend people with autism as the media began to associate the killer with autism.  First of all, autism isn't a mental illness - it is a neurological disorder.  Secondly, people with autism are not prone to be violent.  Violent behavior, especially planning violent behavior, is not a characteristic of autism.  If a child or person on the spectrum is violent, it is usually a reaction to something.  It certainly isn't cold and calculated, evil and deliberate. 
Thankfully, I was not alone in my thoughts on this issue.  Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN, tweeted that there is no evidence of a link between autism and planned violent behavior.  Nancy Grace continually emphasized during her broadcast that there is no link between autism and planned violent behavior.  Autism advocacy groups across the country issued statements denouncing the media's emphasis on the killer's suspected autism, as if it might provide us with a reason, some explanation for why this nutcase would go into an elementary school and kill all those babies.
If the killer did have autism OR Asperger's, that's not the reason why he slaughtered his innocent victims.  But every time the media mentions the killer's name and in the same breath mention autism/Asperger's, they are attaching an unfair and incorrect stigma of violence to the disorder.  There are a lot of people out there who don't know what autism is, and I'm afraid that the stigma being attached to it as a result of this tragedy may lead to unnecessary discrimination against those on the spectrum. 
John Elder Robison wrote the following yesterday in an article published on Psychology Today entitled Asperger's, Autism, and Mass Murder:
"Most school shooters are Caucasian males.  Does that mean every white male Caucasian who enters a school is a potential mass murderer?  Of course not.
Suggesting a mass murderer had Asperger's is much the same - it may be true, but stating the fact does nothing to explain the crime, nor does it help prevent other crimes in the future.  What it does do -- and this is important -- is paint a whole swath of population - Asperger people - with a brush that says "potential mass murderer.""
The article goes on to say that, "There is nothing in the definition of Asperger's or autism that would make a person think we are a violent group... studies show autistic people are far morelikely to be victims of violence than perpetrators."
You can read the rest of the article here - it is probably one of the best I've read over the last few days discussing the link (or lack of one) between autism and murder.                                                    
It's now several days after the tragedy and while some media outlets get it and are referring to the killer as mentally ill without referencing autism, just this morning Elizabeth Vargas on Good Morning America referenced the killer's autism when asking questions regarding the tragic incident.  This has got to stop.  The speculation, the conjecture with the hopes of explaining "Why?" something unimaginable and unthinkable like the Sandy Hook tragedy happened will have other victims - and in this case, it will be those with autism.
Let me make this point to be clear.  I'm not saying autistic people aren't violent.  They certainly can be, as anyone can be.  When our kids were younger, we never left Will and Bryn unattended because we weren't sure what he'd do to her.  For example, if she screamed or cried loud, he might grab her to get her to be quiet.  Any violence we've seen from Will has been spontaneous, a reaction to some sort of stimulus in his environment.  He's never hit her.  His contact with her has never been with the intent to injure her.  So yes, he can be "violent" like any kid can, but not "violent" in the sense of picking up an automatic rifle and using it kill 26 people.  This kid is not violent, he likes giving his sister hugs, and he is on the spectrum...
Just this afternoon, I read about one of the victims who died last Friday.  Six-year-old Dylan Hockley died in the arms of his special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy who also perished as she tried to shield the child from the hail of bullets.  A teacher's aide was also killed in the classroom - a special needs classroom.  I later read that Murphy's family has asked that donations be made to Autism Speaks.  While there has been no official word that Dylan had autism, his family has said that he had "special needs."   It is quite plausible that young Dylan was on the autism spectrum.  And therein lies an incredible irony in this situation... 

This is not the face of autism I hope you remember...
This is...
Remember that.  And let's hope the media spend a little more time reporting on the victims of this terrible tragedy who were members of our special needs community. 
Our continued prayers go out to the residents of Newtown, CT.   May God comfort you and keep you during this incredibly difficult time.

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