Friday, December 14, 2012

Mother with Asperger Syndrome Grieves Sandy Hook Elementary Victims

Today, December 14, 2012, I got a text about four minutes before I walked into my son's school to play the piano for a winter program. The text said that 18 (then up to 20) children had been killed at an elementary school, not unlike my son's. Children the age of the children I would be making music with in a few minutes. I was in shock. The texts I was receiving came from my dear brother, who has small children of his own. Since I was not online or near any media sources, my brother wrote to me what I was seeing on breaking news, and we texted together, as parents, about how horrible, how unthinkable, this heinous act was. His children were with him; mine was in school, and I had to resist an overwhelming impulse to sign him out and leave. 

Then I had to go into the school. I told myself that I would not let any children see the anguish I was feeling for the Sandy Hook Elementary children, their parents, for the principal and the teachers. This was the way the adults (and some were just finding out after I was already in the building) protected both the children (and ourselves), for the rest of the school day. 

President Obama, offering condolences on behalf of the nation, said "I know there's not a parent in American who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief I do." 

Not a parent in America. Overwhelming grief is what I am feeling, as a parent, a community member, a volunteer in my child's school. 

I would like to say that I am grieving just like every other parent in America. I am not. I would like to say that there will be time later to write about the media speculation that the shooter had Asperger syndrome (as well as a personality disorder and OCD) all unverified but being bandied about on any number of news outlets and web sites. There is not; the time is now. 

Whether or not the shooter turns out to be on the autism spectrum, this appalling act was committed by an individual person who made a choice. The choice may or may not have anything to do with the killer's neurology, and it is not likely that it does. It has never been shown, and won't be now as a result of this tragedy, that any particular neurology is more prone to committing truly horrendous crimes, including "typical" people. 

I just want to grieve without having to worry about a different set of children- children who are growing up on the autism spectrum, or with atypical neurologies, with mental health conditions, who are not prone to violence by virtue of having these disabilities, but who could be negatively affected by assumptions that "all these people are dangerous" or even that "all these kids are going to grow up to be no good." (And, yes, I have had parents tell me that someone somewhere along the line has said just that to them about their child.) I would like to be able to grieve just as other parents all over America are doing, without the added baggage of the media's portrayal of Autistics as "dangerous loners" (or of "dangerous loners" as Autistics). 

As an Autistic mother, though, I have to think about the effect of media on children with disabilities and mental health conditions, children who may be frightened about their futures because of a determinism that says "You might grow up to be a killer if you are Autistic." The media is doing it again, and so I don't have the luxury of grieving like parents all over America. I have to care about and care for, people with disabilities who are targeted by sensationalist media reports, as well as, at the same time, feel the sorrow I do for the parents, family members, and community in Newtown, Connecticut, that is stunned by the events of today. 

The last time the media did the "speculation that the killer is Autistic" thing was the Aurora shootings, and it was completely unfounded. I wrote about that  here, and said something that applies to the media coverage of todays' tragedy:

"First, and most important, we need to mourn the victims of the senseless shooting <>. Stop thinking about the killer for a moment and remember the victims and their loved ones. 

When crimes like this happen, it is in some ways easier to turn toward the perpetrator, speculating about the person's mental health, life history, and motives. It is much easier than thinking about the dead victims, the victims in the ICU, the people whose lives have been shattered, the stunned, crying, angry families who will never see their loved ones again. It is so much easier to turn away from their pain and to become fascinated, fixated on the killer."

Most people who have Asperger syndrome are not murderous in nature, and are as appalled by this event as everyone else. Most people with any number of mental health conditions also are not murderous. The thought makes for exciting media coverage for people who can't see that another group of people is being hurt. Ultimately, it won't matter what "disorder" Adam Lanza had, since "having something" can't be shown to be the reason he committed one of the worst crimes in our nation's history.  

I am now going off to take my own advice for the first time today, having some time to myself after being with children all day. I am going to remember the victims and their loved ones, some of whom may have had Asperger's syndrome themselves, some of whom may have had Asperger's syndrome themselves but were gunned down just the same. I am let myself grieve, if I can, just like, and with, parents all over America.

This is what the children sang at the music program I played for:

Song of Peace: A Partner Song with Dona Nobis Pacem
additional words and melody by Mary Donnelly

"If I could have one wish come true,
it would be peace for me and you.
Peace in our hearts and peace of mind;
peace now and ever for all mankind.
So may our voices never cease;
so may we sing our songs of peace."

President Obama's Condolences on Behalf of the Nation

ASAN Statement on Media Reports Regarding Newtown, CT Shooting

December 14, 2012 By Landon Bryce

What follows is a list of all the links I can find regarding the link between the shooting and autism/Asperger's as well as some about mental health conditions/mental illness. Some are written by Autistics, some are written by parents, some are written by people with other disabilities. The list is in no particular order and is sort of clunky but I don't have time to tidy it up. The purpose of the list is to get more exposure for these posts, since this particular entry of mine is being widely viewed.

An interview I did with Richmond VA NBC12

Note: Currently if one does a search on "Asperger's Sandy Hook Elementary" this blog post shows up 3rd in the list. Please repost so that this point of view gets seen by the general public reading about the shootings. 


Paula C. Durbin-Westby said...

I will accept comments here but they need to be about 200 words maximum. You can post more than one short one instead of a really long one that I can't view without posting. Thanks.

BiolArtist said...

I agree with everything you said, and raise you one: The media have to stop this fascination with the killers because notoriety is just what they want. I'd like to test and see that if we, as a society, managed to ignore them, or at least leave them anonymous and stop focusing on their minds, if the frequency would start to decline.

Today I couldn't turn on NPR in the car on a long trip without hearing about this. Endless commentary isn't going to bring anyone back or help the injured recover more quickly. It isn't going to make anyone decide not to shoot up a school because golly, it upset people. They're doing it because they want to upset people. The more upset we are publically, the more we play into the meme of "shoot a bunch of people, get famous".

We don't need to protest against something we all know is wrong. Nobody except the shooters thinks this is a good thing. We do need to protest about parents killing disabled children, because a lot of people don't think that's wrong.

BiolArtist said...

My comment disappeared when I signed in.

I am sad about this, and understand why you speak for parents who imagine this happening to their children.

I believe that we need to stop focusing on the killers for two reasons: agreement with you that we need to stop stigmatizing conditions that the shooters have that are NOT predictive of violence, and also we need to diminish the reward of notoriety.

I agree with the people who say after every major act of violence (mass incidents, assassinations/attempts on public figures) that one motivator is knowing you'll be famous. Take that away, and I'd love to see whether or not the rate of these incidents starts to drop. I'm sure there are other motivations (particularly for politically-related acts) but if the shooters knew their names would be erased from the publicity of the events, I think it's highly probable a lot of these wouldn't happen.

Paula C. Durbin-Westby said...

I am sending something like this to every editor of online media that singles out Asperger syndrome or other conditions as "the cause" of the shooting. Right now this blog entry is #9 on the list when I do a search on "Asperger Sandy Hook Elementary." If you agree with the post, please promote it so we can get the word out.

"I am writing regarding your article about the killer of those innocent children and adults. Although it makes for interesting, sensationalist reading by the general public, those of us who have Asperger's syndrome, and people who have mental health conditions, are being targeted. It's too easy to churn out "explanations" for such a horrendous crime that focus on a population that is not, as a group, murderous or "deeply disturbed." While the nation mourns for the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some of us, like me, are dreading the coming days, where whatever developmental disability or mental health condition (the two are not the same and should not be conflated) is bandied about by the press and by people who don't know any better. Some of the children who were killed might have been on the autism spectrum themselves. Some of the children who are hearing the news reports now, who have a developmental disability, may be horrified, as I am, to be grouped in with a mass murderer. In future, please moderate your articles like this with at least one sentence such as "While most people who have Asperger's syndrome are not mass killers, ....." Thank you for reading.

Paula C. Durbin-Westby said...

There's an article, which I won't link to here, at the New York Daily News- "Sandy Hook mass murderer Adam Lanza, 20, 'deeply disturbed kid' that is problematic. The journalist's email is if you read that article and want to contact the author.

Paula C. Durbin-Westby said...

I will be checking back today for comments. I have to be out for a bit but will check back. NOTE: Sometimes it looks like comments have disappeared. They haven't. You just can't see them until I moderate them.

Bob Castleman said...

As one one the spectrum, I'm obviously troubled by the speculation surrounding the perpetrator's state of mind and the attempts to invoke Asperger's as a root cause. The fixation on the criminal makes sense, though. By focusing on what is "wrong" with the person that does such a thing, people can reassure themselves that because they are "normal", they are incapable of such evil. This construction of a false place of mental safety also explains why there is less focus on the victims. If the victims are "normal", then it could happen to anyone else that is "normal". That is too hard to accept. So the wrongness of the shooter insulates from recognizing any potential for evil within ourselves, and allows us to divert our thoughts from the painful truth that it could happen to us.

It would appear, for a season at least, that the 'cause de jour' for such heinous acts is Asperger's.

Unknown said...

May the memories be eternal with those who died in the terrible shooting yesterday.

Xenia Grant

Unknown said...

Thanks Paula!

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the media is making irresponsible connections to Autism. I've said it time and time again, there is no correlation or causation between Autism and violence. In fact, we're more likely to be victims of crimes!

We've published a response as well.

Bridget said...

Wonderful post Paula! This was the firs time I've read your blog, and I'll make it a point to read it more often. I'm going to share it with everyone, especially my on-the-spectrum friends, and our advocates.

Gavin Bollard said...

BiolArtist; Much as we want to, we'll never stop this fascination with killers, with evil, with the bad boys. It's a crazy fascination but think about it... we know all about Jack the Ripper but how many people remember his victims? It's not a new fascination.

Paula. Great points. I'm disturbed that we feel the need to defend ourselves from an unfounded association with yet another killer and yet here we are. I'm glad that you at least have a good idea of how to react.

Chitra said...

What I don't understand about the coverage is -- why does no one ask what medication the shooter was on? there was just a passing mention about him taking medication in one Washington post column. It is in my mind THE most important question to ask yet is appears to strike no one. Pharma companies after all, are the ones that keep TV stations alive.

Chitra said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paula C. Durbin-Westby said...

Chitra, I accidentally deleted your comment. I thought I was on another page. It was almost the same as the one above, so hope that is OK, and sorry about that. There is no way I can get it back.

Cherisa Spatig said...

Thank you for your beautiful post. I have been trying to find the word to express my feelings and you did it beautifully thank you. My son has Autism and I appreciate your post.

Andrea Silas said...

I have two daughters with aspergers, your post expresses a lot of what I'm feeling and I really appreciate it and want to thank you.

Lara Kimber said...

Thank you for putting into words just what I have been feeling!

Lara Kimber said...

Thank you for putting into words what I have been feeling for days!

BeyondGuessing said...

People who report in this manner, or carelessly suggest this type of correlation, are irresponsible to say the least. It's like saying we need to look more closely at people with long hair after the Manson murders. Of course back then they probably did. One would think we could advance in our thinking and reporting. Ironic because as I was watching various news reports of the event, commercials for anti-depressant drugs were being shown indicating concern if one of the side effects was suicidal thoughts.
Strange because a lot of the descriptions in the news, for possible behavioral disorders, fit some of the parents I meet at the park when my kids play.
And, speaking of violent outbursts, I see more of those with the adults at the gym if you accidentally sit on their bench before they are done, than I do with the autistic children that take classes with my kids.
What goes on in the mind of someone who can do something like this to children might never be known. Studies will be done and speculative theories explained, but unless the person leaves some sort of note or is alive to explain their actions we probably won't know for sure. It remains that, fortunately, the majority of people in all walks of life could never do something like that.

Paula C. Durbin-Westby said...

Thank you so much for posting. I did not get to watch the news coverage, but, yes, that is ironic that they would run ads for meds known to cause suicidal ideation. I love this sentence. "One would think we could advance in our thinking and reporting."

Kate Mia said...

Paula no need to publish my comment here, but I thought you might want to search on "asperger's and violence" and see what the #1 hit is on google by WebMD, if you haven't already seen it. Unfortunately this is the source that people are reading more than anything else associated with this issue.

The first paragraph seems harmless, and disclaims a general association of Asperger's and violence like most other media sources are doing, but it quickly spirals in another direction with the comments made by the "experts". The special interest association of weapons and violence made by the expert on page two is disturbing. Not to mention the autistic traits association on page 1. In my opinion this is the most damaging thing I have seen in the media, so far, as webmd is an extremely popular and well respected source of information on the internet.

This, in my opinion is the only statement from a respected source worth defending, as most of the other statements by the "respectable" media just reported general stereotypes of characteristics associated with Asperger's syndrome, none of which included violence that I have seen until this one, except in Joe Scarborough's unusually worded statement last Summer.

While the experts on webmd are not making an association with violence in general, the potential association with rampage killings comes in loud and clear, however small they may associate it in the article.

I know many individuals with Asperger's who are gun fanatics, of the male variety, all of who take their responsibility in properly handling their weapons, as a special interest, with never any tendencies toward anger or agression that I have seen in discussion with these individuals.

Some of the discussion in the general area of the internet outside of online autism communities on the issue of gun control can get pretty scary, where one would not want to encounter one of those gun fanatics in real life, many of who are of the very angry sounding variety. I like debating gun control, almost as much as debating issues associated with autism speaks and pro health care reform; that is one of my major special interests.:). I understand the love of guns, but would never have one in my home.

Paula C. Durbin-Westby said...

Kate, I am on it. Let me see what it says and will write something.

Paula C. Durbin-Westby said...

Yes, it is very damaging, and once again, tries to pass speculation off as expertise. I do not see a way to post comments. So, I have to figure out how to contact the WebMd higher-ups and call them on their discriminatory article. Thank you for pointing this out, Kate.

city said...

thanks for share.

Stephane Beaudin said...

I wrote this article last year on this very subject.

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