Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…
Dispelling the Myth of Autism and Violence After Newtown
Autism, Violence and the Newtown Shootings
It was an unfortunate connection to make, in the wake of the terrible shootings that took place in Newtown, Ct. on December 14, 2012. In addition to the news of this terrible tragedy, which was hard enough to take without adding this connection in, parents of and people with autism have also had to contend with the unsettling news that the shooter may have had Asperger’s syndrome.
Twenty innocent kids, six adults, all dead — who can even really contemplate that? It was the second worse school shooting in our nation’s history, and probably by far the most shocking because of the age group involved.
But parents of and people with autism spectrum disorders — including, but not limited to, Asperger’s syndrome — have not been able to grieve in quite the same way as the rest of the nation. As soon as the first reports came out that the shooter involved in one of the worst mass shootings in our history had Asperger’s syndrome, the media fixated on it.
Asperger’s syndrome was connected to violence, and hate speech about people with autism and violence began cropping up all over the Internet and media.
Media Contributed to the False Narrative about Autism and Violence
CNN news host Piers Morgan had a guest, a psychologist, who said that people with Asperger’s syndrome were “missing something in their head.” He went on to say that the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome such as lack of perceived empathy and poor social skills leaves those with Asperger’s syndrome prone to serious depression and anxiety.
The fact that a psychologist would say this is seriously disturbing, to say the least. People with autism CAN and do make social connections and have empathy — they just have to do it in a different way than the rest of us.
A glance at the comments sections of most newspapers and Twitter revealed a shocking ignorance of the general public of just what Asperger’s syndrome was. The autism and violence connection had sprung like something out of Pandora’s Box, and there was no putting it back in.
Getting the Truth Out There
People in the autism community sprang into action. Bloggers, both parents of kids with autism and adults with autism, posted probably hundreds of blogs about the truth of autism — how autism is not connected with violence, stories about their kids, etc. In a few days, the media followed suit. The New York Times ran several good pieces, and many other major news outlets did as well. Many retractions were made, and most news outlets publicly disputed the link between autism and violence. But some are concerned that the damage has already been done.
People in the autism community were, and are, afraid that the general public will now be scared of their kids or them. Perhaps you are too. If the only information that a member of the general public has about what Asperger’s syndrome or autism is “Wasn’t that what the guy who killed all those kids had?”, then we’re in trouble. This is not an association that we need to make. How can we keep the public from stereotyping Asperger’s syndrome? We spread factual information to everyone that we know. We need to make sure the public knows the facts — that there is no connection between autism and violence of this magnitude.
What are the facts about autism and violence?
It helps to be armed with facts. If someone makes a crack about you or your kid being dangerous, if you feel the school is giving you a cold shoulder all of a sudden, or if you just all of a sudden feel more worried about your child’s future than you did before, these are the facts.
There is no connection between autism and planned violence.
- Statistically, people with autism are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the ones perpetrating it.
- There is a difference between meltdowns and planned violence. People with autism and Asperger’s syndrome may be triggered by sensory issues, changes in their routine, or other things that feel threatening to them to lash out, even to hit or kick, but it is a momentary thing that usually passes pretty quickly. There is a big difference between that and planning an act of violence so big that it kills 27 people.
- People with autism are sometimes said to not have empathy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those on the autism spectrum may not show empathy like you and I do. But it is in there tenfold. People with autism often miss the signs that another person is in distress, or they may be too overwhelmed to respond immediately. They may not know what to say. But once they know someone’s hurting, they are often the first to try to make it better.
- People with autism are rule followers with their own kind of empathy who live in a logical world. Anyone who could carry out a mass school shooting has neither empathy nor any interest in following the rules.
Empathy, Autism and Violence
Emily Willingham explains the difference in the way that people with autism experience empathy succinctly. Outsiders may think that because some people with autism don’t seem to show as many emotions or act in ways that are the norm in social interaction that makes them more prone to violence. But this is not the case at all — in fact, it may be quite the opposite.
She says that empathy comes in two forms, cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.
Cognitive empathy is, as she defines it, the ability to understand how someone is feeling just by noticing social cues, voice fluctuations, body language and other nonverbal language. People who might be labeled as psychopaths have this ability in spades, and often try to exploit it.
People with autism, though, are very bad at recognizing non-verbal language. So they may not be aware of when a situation requiring empathy is happening. This does NOT mean the person with autism cannot understand emotion, however — they understand it all too well.
Emotional empathy is the ability to feel and understand what someone else is feeling, once you are aware of their situation. Research and anecdotal evidence shows that once a person with autism or Asperger’s syndrome understands the situation, they feel what the other person is feeling intensely. They don’t subject their feelings to social constructs, either. They will try to help in whatever way they can. They will show their feelings in whatever way they are able. This is the kind of empathy often lacking in those with the label of psychopath — the lack of ability to understand other’s feelings.
So, while it may seem like a person with autism does not show much empathy, it is only because the situation is not being presented to them in a way that they can understand.
It is important to educate the public on these differences so they will be able to understand those with autism and help them feel part of the community, instead of stereotyping them. This information will help dispel some of the myths about autism and violence.
Aggressive Behavior and Autism
There will be some parents reading this who may not want to admit it to themselves, but are secretly afraid that their kid has more violent tendencies than they would like to admit. All kids with autism are different. If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. But some kids with autism do have more aggression than others.
What can you do?
Therapy, medications, sensory integration therapy, occupational therapy, diet are all things you have probably explored at this point. So just rest assured that no matter how difficult your child sometimes acts, it can still change.
People with autism do change as they mature and get older. Hormones and brain chemicals change. Emotional regulation and tolerance to the environment around you can be learned, but sometimes takes longer to kick in for some people than others.
There is always hope. It may not seem that way, but there is. Just keep being there for your child, keep showing them how much you love them. Eventually, it will get better.
Be sure, also, to tell those around you as well as yourself that aggressive behavior against family members or caretakers (which are the most common targets of aggressive tendencies in autism) does not equate planned violence. It does not equate something on the scale of the Newtown mass shooting. They are apples and oranges.
Talking to the Public about Autism, Violence and Newtown
Many parents and adults with autism on blogs, Facebook and Twitter are worried about what the public perception of autism is now. One man asked, “Should I go to my boss and tell him I’m not going to shoot anyone?” Another was going to disclose to her boss that she had Asperger’s syndrome and needed certain accommodations, and decided to put it off. A connection between autism and violence is scary stuff.
Regardless of whether or not the shooter had Asperger’s syndrome or not, he certainly had something else going on that was a much more powerful contributor than his autism diagnosis, if indeed he actually did have one. Asperger’s syndrome and autism CAN go hand in hand with other mental illnesses or with simply being an evil person.
When it comes to violence, though, it is no more relevant than having brown hair or green eyes. We know this, but the more that the public realizes this, the more acceptance and room there will be for our kids at the table, in the world around us. Let the world know, there is no connection between autism and violence of this scale.
Feel free to email or print out this newsletter and hand out to all the people in your own life to reinforce that autism does not cause violence. Send it out to anyone who you are worried might have a negative opinion of autism, either as a result of the Newtown shootings or not.
And for more information on helping your loved one improve their social skills and better recognize the feelings of others and show empathy see my latest book, New Hope for Autism – 15 Successful Strategies Moms Don’t Know.