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What I Want People to Know About Autism

December 18, 2012

I know all of us have been inundated with facts and stories about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. The most accurate way to describe it is “heart-breaking.” It simply causes my heart to ache when I think about it. Obviously, the best thing we can do is make sure we are praying for the families and friends of these victims.

Any time something like this happens, we start to wonder why. It is natural that in the search to answer the “why” question, we would try to understand how anyone could do such a horrific thing. That is why so many have tried and will try to psychoanalyze Adam Lanza. There have been FBI profilers, psychiatrists, etc. who have been on the news and tried to explain why he acted this way. Of course, most of those interviewed don’t have any personal knowledge of him or his family. What has really troubled me is that when the news came out Lanza had Asperger’s (a disorder that is part of the autism spectrum – it will be known simply as  one of the autism spectrum disorders beginning in 2013), people began trying to use that diagnosis to explain his violent behavior. As the parent of a child with Asperger’s, I guess my frustration at this mistake is understandable. But I like to think that even if I didn’t have personal experience with it, I would still see the danger in letting this misunderstanding exist. Over the last year, I have learned so much about autism from friends, teachers, and other resources, and the more I learn, the more I want to share that information with others. So, here are a few things I think we need to remember.

  • Just because someone is allowed to say something on TV or write it in a blog does not necessarily mean it is accurate. Trained counselors and psychologists need a lot of time with someone before they can fully understand that person’s challenges. To have a few facts about someone’s life (especially someone you have never met) and then draw broad, sweeping conclusions is not just mistaken, it is dangerously misleading.
  • Autism is not a mental illness. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder. The latest statistics are that 1 in 88 deal with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in some form. That means if you are reading this, you probably have personal experience with it or you know someone who does.
  • If you have met one child with autism, then you have met one child with autism. That is a statement I have heard several times from those who study autism, and it is absolutely true. You cannot generalize based on one experience how everyone will act. The Autism Spectrum is called a “spectrum” for a reason – there are a wide variety of conditions. For instance, if someone is struggling with anxiety,  that may mean severe panic attacks or it may be a milder sense of discomfort. But both are described as “anxiety.” So the next time you are tempted to say, “I knew someone with autism, and this is how autistic people think…” please pause and remember that.
  • A lot has been said about the challenges with “empathy” for those with ASD, including an interview on Piers Morgan. Please read this post – http://www.emilywillinghamphd.com/2012/12/autism-empathy-and-violence-one-of.html for a discussion of emotional empathy in the autism spectrum. I don’t know the author, but I agree with her.
  • I read the article entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” It was powerfully written, and I have not had to experience anything near what the author experienced. But I was very disappointed that she conflated autism spectrum disorders with her son’s violent behavior. It seemed to leave the impression (that I think was unintentional on her part) that this is how most who struggle with ASD react. That is simply not true.
  • Please consider these responses from groups that deal with autism on a daily basis:
    • Autism Society: “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.”
    • Autism Global Initiative director Valerie Paradiz: “The eyes of the world are on this wrenching tragedy—with 1 in 88 now diagnosed, misinformation could easily trigger increased prejudice and misunderstanding.”
  • Lastly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, researchers have found no link between Asperger’s and pre-meditated violence. In fact, those with autism are more likely to have violence done against them. Please remember that when you hear this discussed. See this story for more – http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/experts-link-aspergers-violence-17987339#.UNB66Hn4JXN

I don’t know what led Adam Lanza to make the terrible decision that he did. I do believe it is too simplistic to say there was only one factor, and I also believe that each of us will be accountable for our own decisions before God. He will have to answer for his actions. It is a reminder that we live in a fallen, sinful world where evil exists that is beyond our ability to explain. It is also a reminder that we need to trust in God, especially in the face of difficult circumstances. I think the discussion of mental health is one we should have if we want to do what we can to prevent future tragedies like this one. I just think we need to be careful in the way we choose our words, and we need to have an accurate understanding of what we are saying. As a parent of a child with Asperger’s, a condition that is so often misunderstood, I would truly appreciate you passing this message along to others.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharon Rich permalink
    December 18, 2012 1:09 pm

    Thank you for this informative article on Autism & Aspergers. I do have family & friends that have children with these conditions. Everyone should be educated on these conditions so that we, as a society, can come to understand these individuals. Thank you, again.

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 19, 2012 5:39 am

      Sharon –
      Thanks for the comment. We have definitely been on a educational journey when it comes to the subject, and I am glad to see how many resources are out there to help us understand these conditions better.

  2. Houston Bynum permalink
    December 18, 2012 1:13 pm

    Excellent article, Andrew!

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 19, 2012 5:53 am

      Thanks Houston – I appreciate you and your ministry at Happy Haven that blesses a lot of children!

  3. December 18, 2012 5:12 pm

    Thank you, Andrew. I especially appreciate your point about “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” I’m sure you remember our niece Sarah. She had seizures. I’ve had a couple of migraine-related seizures. Neither of us would ever, ever be described as an “average” person with seizures.

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 19, 2012 5:49 am

      I appreciate you sharing about your niece Sarah – it is a great point! I think all of us are tempted to make broad generalizations (I know I am), but they can get us in trouble.

  4. Sam Boyd permalink
    December 18, 2012 8:45 pm

    Great Article! Well written and I appreciate you clarifying these things in the wake of media’s sensationalizing of this event! -Sam from MTFMC

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 19, 2012 5:36 am

      Sam –
      Good to hear from you! I appreciate your feedback.

  5. December 18, 2012 10:02 pm

    Very well written. I have 3 different friends that children have aspergers and a cousin with autism . He has held the same job for 15 years now and has recently learned to ride his bike to work. The ones with aspergers are totally different children.They are loving and kind and yes have problems but you can’t put them all in same category. I am sure they will blame this on aspergers even though they are not violent. It was quoted on news tonight that children or adults with aspergers are not the type of people to do this. Thank you for your article

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 19, 2012 5:26 am

      Dianne,
      I appreciate you sharing your experiences with several different individuals on the spectrum. That is a great illustration of how broad the spectrum truly is. I’m also glad to hear about the quote in the news; a lot of great organizations out there have put out statements and articles in the last few days (like autismspeaks.org). Thanks for the feedback!

  6. December 18, 2012 10:02 pm

    Very well written. Concise and informative. Thanks Andrew.

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 19, 2012 5:56 am

      Thanks Reed – Luke and Micah are blessed with four awesome grandparents, and we are thankful for you every day!

  7. December 18, 2012 11:00 pm

    I was going to say that you needed a “Like” button, but when I clicked back here, there it was!

  8. December 19, 2012 12:31 am

    “If you have met one child with autism, then you have met one child with autism.” That’s GOLD, man. I love it.

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 19, 2012 5:34 am

      Matt,
      Thanks for the comment – I wish I could take credit for that statement, since I think it is a great reminder about not making broad generalizations. As we have done more reading about autism, I have heard or seen that sentence several times from so many different sources that I don’t know where it originated. I do think it can apply to a lot of different situations as well, not just autism. It is a great thought for ministry in general.

  9. Patty Gammage permalink
    December 19, 2012 5:34 am

    Wonderful article. My granddaughter has Autism, and I,too, was grieved even more than those uninformed people about the “Link” to Aspergers. Thanks for writing and sharing how these precious souls are not mental health cases!!!!! The Tragedy at Sandy Hook and Autism have nothing to do with each other.

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 19, 2012 6:04 am

      Patty,
      I appreciate your response and you sharing about your grand-daughter. Those with this diagnosis are precious souls, and it is important to learn all we can in order to help them.

  10. December 20, 2012 11:26 am

    Thoughtful post. It could have been an angry post, but, with the Spirit of God so clearly inside you, it wasn’t. At all. Bravo to you (and the Spirit)! :)

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 20, 2012 12:02 pm

      Thanks Jennifer! I really appreciate you saying that, because I was afraid it might have come across harshly, and that wasn’t my intent. Thank you for your encouragement!

  11. Shawna permalink
    December 20, 2012 12:23 pm

    Well said Andrew. My thoughts exactly.

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      December 20, 2012 5:30 pm

      Thanks Shawna – we are so thankful for all the information and encouragement you have shared with us over the last year and a half!

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