Like the rest of the nation, I spent Friday and the rest of the weekend heartbroken, sick, screaming from my soul for the lives lost in Newtown, Connecticut. I find it impossible to wrap my head around the scope of it. And as the reports ran ad nauseam and the faces marked by tragedy filled up the television screen, one news item had my full attention: they believe that the shooter had autism.
I heard the reporter on CNN bringing it up again and again, as though it might have been a contributing factor. "They mentioned he had no facial expression as he fired the gun," she said. "And we know autism is often characterized by a lack of empathy..."
I would tell you that I startled my daughter by shouting at the TV, but she was right next to me and shouting even louder than I was.
SHUT UP. Just shut the hell up.
What do you know? What do you really know about autism?
Autism is often characterized by a lack of empathy, yes. Often, but not always. My son is one of those living exceptions to the rule. It's rare that you don't find David smiling, or in a good mood. His teachers call him "Sunshine in a bottle." I know that there are many children with autism who aren't like David, though.
But let's talk about empathy, here.
"Lack of empathy" doesn't mean that a person with autism is unfeeling. It doesn't mean they can't follow the rules. It doesn't mean that they don't know right from wrong, entirely - especially on the epic scale of life and death. It just means that they have a hard time identifying anything from any persepective but their own.
Instead of saying to David "How do you think your sister feels when you call her names?" I have to turn it around and say "How would you feel if Anna called you a brat?" Once it's spelled out, though, and clearly - a person with autism is perfectly capable of "getting it". It's just not their natural inclination to do so.
A lack of empathy doesn't mean they are emotionless killing machines just waiting to strike.
I turned to Anna after watching the interview and said "Can you imagine David planning something like this? Not just because he would never deliberately hurt anyone - I mean the actual planning of it? Figuring out what time to go, packing a bag and selecting the specialized bullets, adding extra ammo clips, loading the guns, driving there and then doing it?"
That's where, more than anything, I don't see the autism. David, as I've chronicled here, can have some ugly outbursts sometimes. They've lessened in frequency as he's aged and we've all learned to communicate better (thank God), but they do still arrive occasionally. When they do, they are entirely impulsive - nothing planned and certainly nothing in his control.
What the shooter in Connecticut did that day was all about control. It was planned, it was acted upon, and it had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with his autism, if he was, in fact, autistic.
His autism might have made him more isolated, though. Might have made him feel much more lonely. Maybe even bullied, on occasion. And while none of that excuses or entirely explains why he did what he did, it certainly could have added to or amplified the stress of his mental illness. Mental illness that should have been diagnosed and treated, but wasn't.
So please, don't point your fingers in my son's direction. Use them to dial a phone, or type an email, or write a good old-fashioned letter to your congressman, your governor, your school board - ask them what sort of mental health diagnostics and services they provide and what more they can do to see that something like this stops being just one more mass shooting. Then ask them what you can do from your end.
As much as I fight for the services my David needs, this need is just as, and maybe more pressing. My son is not mentally ill. Would they even have mentioned if the shooter were dyslexic? Doubtful. My son has a learning disability that can stymie him socially, but every day we're overcoming that more and more.
For thousands of parents, there are some battles that the basic learning and behavioral support provided in a school district just can't win. Not without more funding, not without honest conversation as to the nature of mental illness.
And certainly not without knowing when a learning disability doesn't fit that criteria.
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