What I Want People to Know About Autism
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.