I’m supposed to be in bed. I have a long day tomorrow, and I’m using up some very valuable reserves of energy in order to write this post.
I am a ball of emotion after what happened on Friday. 27 people were killed and my heart goes out to their families.
I find it interesting that not even 24 hours passed before there was talk about the shooter being autistic. I knew it would come up — it nearly always does. It even had one “expert” saying this:
Well, actually, a symptom of Asperger’s, and this is one report coming out which may or may not be true, is something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety.”
I asked people on my personal Facebook page to defriend me if they believe that autistic people lacked something in their brains, if someone my neurology made them fearful of me or people like me because they assume that I lack something — what? Empathy. What they’re talking about is empathy.
There’s been plenty of speculation on empathy and autistic people’s relation to empathy. You can thank Simon Baron-Cohen for that stereotype – that autistic people don’t experience empathy like the rest of the world does. You can read his book, I suppose, if you want detailed information. Or you can read this article that unpacks the idea about theory of mind and empathy quite well.
Of course, since Baron-Cohen made his comments about empathy and theory of mind, the science behind his ideas have been proven a bit wrong. A recent study explained that perhaps autistic people don’t experience empathy like neurotypical people do, but that is only because we are unable to properly express empathy. You can read about that here. I can definitely say that I probably fall into this category. I often am so overwhelmed with what I perceive other people feeling that I can’t properly articulate my own feelings and express the correct social response. It took me until today to even be able to write this post and I’m still processing all the information regarding Friday’s shooting. I’d also like, at this point in time, to link Emily Willingham’s post about empathy, because I think it’s a great read. I often defer to Emily, because as a scientist and a mother of an autistic child, I think she’s fantastically knowledgeable and says things far better than I could (as a non-scientist).
Most people who read this blog know that I’m autistic. I was diagnosed last year with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 30, having displayed symptoms from a very young age. I knew I was different, because I didn’t behave in “normal” ways but I didn’t even really know what “normal” meant. So the way that autism is treated in the media really does have an impact on me. In addition to being an autistic person, I am also a parent of two children on the autism spectrum. My daughter is six and my son is five. As soon as I heard about the shooting, I realized that in another time and place, my children could have been involved. They could have been killed. They could have been traumatized by hearing one of their teachers killed. But it’s more than that. I defer to Paula Durbin-Westby’s post about how to react as an autistic mother, because she said it better than I ever could. How do you respond when the media is vilifying people like you? How do you tell your children about such a horrific event, knowing that they may hear about the killer’s presumed diagnosis and that it matches theirs? I don’t even know. It’s a process, and I won’t be telling my five and six year old about it anytime soon, because I don’t think that they’re emotionally prepared for that (even I’m not, not really).
I am also a former school teacher. I taught 6th grade, and then at another time, 10th-12th grade. But I think a lot about my students, and I also think about the teachers that lost their lives on Friday. In particular, I still haven’t managed to verbally explain who Victoria Soto is without breaking down literally sobbing. A lot of people talk about teachers and what they’re worth, and well, Ms. Soto was one of the good ones. What a brave and courageous individual who sacrificed her own life so that her students — her tiny six and seven year old students — could live.
So tonight, I’m conflicted. I’m angry that this happened. I’m angry that autism and mental illness is being vilified as a potential cause of this shooter’s decisions, and that even more so than before, when a person is a “loner” or doesn’t make eye contact, they’ll be seen as a threat. It was bad before, and I fear it will only become worse as the days go on.
I don’t know if I can talk about the discussion surrounding mental illness and autism as a positive sign. Overwhelmingly, the conversation has been directed by people who are related to autistic people and mentally ill people. Rarely have autistic people been permitted to talk about our own experiences without being accused of “well, that’s good for you, but you’re not like this person — this person is violent!” I have zero problem with parents of autistic children talking about the stigma and how that’s a terrible thing. I have zero problem with that. What I have a problem with is parents and professionals trying to tell me that they know better, that they know the autistic mind better than autistic people ourselves. I’m sorry, but no. You’re wrong, and speaking over us as though we don’t matter, we don’t count isn’t helping us, and it certainly isn’t helping your child who will be one of us when they grow older. It’s yet again the “not like my child” statements — well, no, your six year old probably isn’t like me, because I’m an adult. If you (general) were judged about what your life would be like when you were six years old, what could they tell? Oftentimes, autistic children’s parents are told that their child will never be able to do x, y, and z when they are extremely young, but they don’t know that to be true. I am sure that my parents heard a few of those statements, but I’m an adult now. I have a driver’s license and a college degree, and while I’m completely understanding that those things aren’t possible for every autistic person, they are possible with support for many.
Listen to autistic people. Mourn the victims. Talk more about the 27 lives that were lost than about preventing mentally ill and autistic people from procreating. Please. Whether Adam Lanza shared my neurology or not, I know he did a terrible thing, and my neurology should no more be implicated in his crime than the fact that we both have brown hair.