I remember vividly when I was asked to be a voice for our local community and provide my thoughts as both the parent of someone with autism and a professional resource about the Sandy Hook massacre of December 2012. In particular, I was asked if I would be comfortable addressing the connection between Adam Lanza’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and premeditated violence. Without hesitation, I welcomed Paul Van Osdol and a cameraman from WTAE into my home. I had done plenty of media interviews in the past, but this interview was different.
I felt like I had to defend my son’s honor, and the honor of each and every individual diagnosed on the spectrum. I refused to let Adam Lanza become the new face of the autism community. And tonight, I refuse to let Nikolas Cruz take that spot, either.
As the cameraman was setting up equipment in my dining room, Christian arrived home from school. He was expecting the news crew as I had prepared him the night before, so he wasn’t nervous. He acted perfectly natural as he came in our front door. I asked him how his school day was as he set down his backpack, took off his coat, and grabbed his newspaper bag. He shook hands with Paul and the cameraman, and then went to his room to change into more comfortable clothes before delivering his papers.
Christian quickly came to the front of the house, loaded his bag after counting his papers, excused himself kindly, then went out the door. The cameraman filmed him delivering to a few of our neighbors’ houses.
“He appears to be a kind young gentleman. How do you feel about the connection between violence and autism upon learning that Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome?” Paul asked me on camera.
I remember exactly what I said, and I will stand by this until I take my last breath: “Someone with autism …. someone with Asperger’s … they are not capable of premeditating a crime of this magnitude.”
I also recall speaking to another parent earlier that afternoon, whose child was bullied at school by other children who knew he had autism.
They called him a murderer. A little boy with autism … an innocent boy who so desperately tries to be a part of our world … was labelled as a murderer. Let that sink in.
I shared this story as well during my interview. “I don’t want these terrible accusations resulting in the bullying of even one more individual,” I cried.
There is a difference between autism and mental illness. There is what is called “co-morbidity,” and this is where the boat is being missed. It is certainly possible that criminals with mental illness have a diagnosis of autism. However, in such cases, it is abundantly clear that these individuals have a higher IQ and cognitive functioning than someone who is significantly impacted. Someone who meets every criterion for an autistic disorder is not someone you will find planning a mass murder.
In my new role at Wesley Family Services, I am blessed to serve as an account manager for the Healthy Relationships Curriculum. Something our team is evaluating *right now* is how our lessons specifically address the needs of juvenile and young adult offenders with autism. Many times, what we see in the criminal justice system are young people who end up being taunted into breaking the law, lack coping skills to effectively deal with rejection, lack knowledge of private vs. public behavior, and lack of understanding of what laws are or even why they exist. Something we also need to remain cognizant of – highly cognizant of – is that even though many young people with autism fall into the perpetrator category (either by mistake or because their comorbidity contributed to the crime), the majority will end up as … VICTIMS. They are victims of bullying, sexual assault, and/or battery.
There are many things that contribute to mass killings in schools:
⇒ easy access to semi-automatic weapons
⇒ lack of mental health support but a whoooooole lot of stigma still present
⇒ incessant bullying that occurs 24/7/365 thanks to social media and smartphones
⇒ parents not being accountable and not being fully “in the know” with their children
⇒ schools without locks, metal detectors and/or proper safety procedures
autism – yes, please take this OFF of your list.
Until we stop the fingerpointing and realize that this issue has many deep layers, we will continue to get nowhere. We certainly won’t get anywhere blaming a population of innocent individuals with a neurological difference.
Stop. Blaming. Autism.
There’s so much work to be done in these dark times, and each and every one of us, though we can’t do everything, can do something. Enough Tweets of thoughts and prayers, enough viral candle posts on Instagram, enough Facebook profile frames with hashtags. Break the cycle and do something that will create a better tomorrow. Do something so that parents no longer fear sending their children to school and not seeing them come through the front door in the afternoon. AMERICA, WE HAVE TO DO BETTER.
I urge you to please be a voice and educate your children, your loved ones, your friends, the lady you see weekly at church sitting in the pew behind you, the old man buying the perfect apple in the produce aisle at Giant Eagle, even perfect strangers about what really triggers massacres – hate and mental illness.
Autism didn’t load the AR-15.