My daughter is five years old. She is in kindergarten. She likes to wear a hat everywhere she goes. As she falls asleep, she gently rubs her blanket with the tips of her fingers. She is afraid of the vacuum. She loves bacon and stealing sips of my coffee. When she’s hurt, she’ll ask me to kiss her “boo-boo-owie.” She’s watched “A Bug’s Life” so many times, she has the dialogue memorized. When she’s tired, she’ll sometimes crawl into my lap and fall asleep curled up next to me. She’s mostly left-handed, but sometimes she’ll decide to write with her right hand … because she can. She gets into trouble and sits on time-out, which she does not like – not one little bit. When she says, “I’m sorry” or “I love you,” she means it.
When I heard the news yesterday about the horrible tragedy that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, my very first thought was, That could’ve been my daughter. Why? Not because we are in Connecticut; 3,000 miles separate us from the epicenter of yesterday’s heartbreak. But that geographic buffer didn’t prevent yesterday’s events from hitting close to home. My little girl has so very much in common with the 20 young lives cut short by a senseless act of violence. Like those children, she goes to school everyday with no expectation other than the routine she knows — circle time, math, reading, art, recess, lunch, spelling, Papa waiting to pick her up. The most violence she encounters in a day is a temper tantrum over unshared toys. She doesn’t even know what a gun is.
So, when news reporters started speculating on what drove Adam Lanza to shatter the peaceful security of Newtown, Connecticut, I was heartbroken all over again by the implications or even bald assertions that Adam Lanza massacred 27 people because he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. Why? Because although my daughter has infinitely more things in common with the Sandy Hook Elementary students, she may share one thing in common with Adam Lanza — she is autistic. (And I say “may” here, because I have YET to see an accurate, authoritative report on ANY medical diagnosis for Adam Lanza.)
I don’t know what motivated Adam Lanza to do what he did. As I said several times yesterday, we call such acts “senseless,” because they literally defy logic, reason or explanation. What I do know is that Adam Lanza did not kill 27 people and himself because he was autistic. Autism is a neurologic disorder; it is not a mental illness. Even if autism were a mental illness, that does not mean that its diagnostic criteria include propensity for violence. Compare the DSM-IV criteria for a diagnosis of autism with those for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. Lacking an ability to express or engage social or emotional reciprocity is NOT the same as callous indifference to others’ feelings, a low threshold for discharge of aggression or the incapacity to experience guilt. I don’t know how any reasonably trained psychologist or psychiatrist could look at the diagnostic criteria for autism and even speculate that it caused or contributed to a violent outburst of truly epic proportions. Yet, we don’t hear the talking-head doctors speculating that Adam Lanza suffered from antisocial personality disorder. Why? Because that doesn’t have the same political sound-bite quality as “autism.”
I would like to say that I am shocked, but really I am just saddened and frustrated by the reports – many of which are now endorsed by prominent public figures proclaiming expertise in psychology or psychiatry – that attempt to establish a link between autism and yesterday’s horrific events. I understand the need to search for some reason or explanation for why. Having someone or something to blame gives a grieving person somewhere to direct anger, sadness, confusion.
But I am furiously angry at the “professionals” who get on television – with all they know about grieving, post-traumatic stress, and the dangers of making a diagnosis without all the facts — and perpetuate falsehoods, myths, and misunderstandings about a community of people already struggling to achieve the recognition and acceptance from society so richly deserved. I am furiously angry, because what I hear these “experts” saying over and over again is that my daughter – my beautiful, sweet, loving, funny little girl – has more in common with a cold-hearted killer than the 20 beautiful souls who perished and the hundreds more he scarred.
Please – I truly beg you – do not fall for the sensationalistic, irresponsible speculation about autism simply because the idiot who utters it has the letters “Dr” in front of his or her name. Instead, go look at the picture above. Tell me you don’t see a million other innocent five-year-old faces in her face. Tell me you don’t see a world of possibility twinkling in those five-year-old eyes. Tell me that you can look at the picture, knowing now that she is autistic, and see her gunning down her classmates in cold blood. Because that’s what the media hype would have you believe about her.
This is just me, writing as a mom with a heavy heart. Admittedly, I feel defensive. But, my voice is not the only one having this conversation. Mom blogger and biologist Emily Willingham wrote here. Disability rights activist Paula C. Durbin (who is herself autistic) wrote here. Michael John Carley of GRASP (and father of two school-age boys) wrote here. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network released this statement. Read these blogs and statements. Share them. Amplify the voices that tell the true story about living, loving and learning on the autism spectrum.
My heart, my wishes, my hopes and my sympathy go out to the entire Newtown, Connecticut community. Like Paula Durbin, I just want to grieve for you without having to worry about another community.
My thanks go out to Liz Ditz (@lizditz) for leading me to the great sources linked above.
My love and empathy go out to all those in the ASD community. May your voices be heard over the din of those who would perpetuate misinformation.
UPDATE: Please see Liz Ditz’s blog, I Speak of Dreams, for an outstanding collection of commentary from the ASD community on the media’s (mis)handling of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy.
UPDATE (12/18/12): This story – right here – is one worth remembering.
UPDATE (12/20/12): And this one.