“We Are Not Diseased”

Famous Autistics Word Cloud 5

I’ve been feeling pretty good lately, and I’ll tell you why. My oldest daughter (14) did something that impressed me no end. Her Health class has been studying mental illness for the past couple of weeks. You know, the usual teenage awareness stuff: depression, anxiety, anorexia, suicide. It was all going pretty well, too. No negative blowback from my girl, even though she’s keenly aware of her own diagnoses.

But then the class turned to ADHD, and this happened. Introducing the lesson, her teacher said something like, “Now let’s look at another disease, ADHD.” This prompted my daughter (who has ADHD along with autism) to raise her hand. “Excuse me,” she said, “but ADHD is not a disease. I have ADHD, and I’m just fine.” The teacher, caught off guard, apologized for having misspoken, and then moved on with the lesson. Pretty impressive, wouldn’t you say? She definitely deserved an attagirl for advocating like that.

However, when she told us the story that night, I could tell she was more upset than she let on at school. Because she tries hard to be good in class, she kept her response there short and polite. But she let it all out at dinner. “We’re not diseased,” she declared, pounding the table with her fist. “We’re different, not less. Why do people do this to us? I can’t believe he said this. And he’s a Health teacher. He should know better!”

I couldn’t agree with her more, and I told her so. I also told her how proud of her I was. It was wonderful to see that my daughter has her head screwed on straight and doesn’t tolerate nonsense. She gets that ADHD—and autism, for that matter—is nothing to be ashamed of. She gets that she’s not diseased or locked in to a life of limitations. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions, and she’s determined to accomplish them—no matter how much BS she has to deal with along the way.

A Quick Pivot.

All of this got me thinking about recent events, especially the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. News of that attack seemed to be a kind of tipping point in the gun control debate. With President Obama taking to the podium yet again, this time sounding exasperated and even disgusted, people are talking about gun violence more seriously. And that’s a good thing.

But all this attention has its down side. For every time another mass shooting occurs, talking heads on TV and the radio pivot almost instinctively to the topic of mental illness. They decry the sorry state of mental health care in the country, and suggest that if we only did better at this, massacres like these wouldn’t happen. And when I hear stuff like this, I cringe. 

Stigmatizing the “Other.”

Of course, I’m all for improved mental health care, but there is no real science linking mental illness to mass shootings—or to shootings in general. In fact, those with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of such catastrophes than the perpetrators. As The New York Times recently reported, “Fewer than 5 percent of gun crimes are committed by people with mental illness; fewer than 5 percent of people with mental illnesses commit violent crimes.” And so I cringe every time mental illness enters the conversation. I can already feel the damage that it will do to people with mental illness.

  • I see the way it stigmatizes them.
  • I see how it turns them into a class of “others” who are alien to “normal” people and inferior to them.
  • I see how, intentionally or not, this kind of talk stirs up fear, which makes it harder for the people to find the acceptance and help they need.
  • I see how it presents them as weak and out of control, when quite often they’re stronger than their peers—with the strength that comes from adversity.

Something else troubles me about this conversation, though. Whenever mental illness is brought up in the context of a mass shooting, autism follows fast on its heels.

Mental What?

I commented on this back in 2012, when MSNBC host and former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough insinuated that James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooter, had autism, and that this was a major reason for his attack. Scarborough’s comments prompted a huge outcry, and he later issued a semi-apology. But it was too late; the damage had already been done.

But now it has happened again. Not long after the Oregon shooting, a Facebook page popped up called “Families against Autistic Shooters.” It was vicious and hateful—and more than a little ill-informed. Fortunately, the page didn’t last very long. But the fact that it showed up at all demonstrates that we still have a lot of work to do.

The speed with which people glide from mental illness to autism is as confusing as it is disheartening. ASD is not a mental illness. It just isn’t. It is a neurological difference (disorder if you must) in which the autistic person’s brain is wired differently from the typical person’s brain. But it’s not an illness. You can’t control it with medication, as you can control OCD or anxiety. You can’t shock it away with electrodes as you can do to severe depression. You can’t “overcome” it through talk therapy or yoga or meditation. You can’t even pray it away. It just is, and the best thing you can do is make room for it.

Words Matter.

I’m not saying that everything is rainbows and unicorns for autistic people—especially those with more severe manifestations of the condition. But let’s not call it an illness or a disease. That’s where the word cloud at the top of this post comes in. It’s a list of famous, successful people, all of whom are autistic. Ask any one of them, and I doubt any one of them would call themselves mentally ill. And they shouldn’t.

Words matter. They tell you what something is—and what it isn’t. If you call a cat a fish, and try to put it in a tank full of water, you’ll be doing an injustice to the cat. (You’ll also end up a bloody, scratched-up mess.) If you call autism a disease and treat it like a disease, you are doing something very similar—an injustice to autistic people. For calling it a disease naturally opens the door to discussions about cures. And that can get pretty dangerous. Just ask the people who have been subjected to bleach enemas and chemical castration in the name of a “cure” for autism.

If you accept that autism is a difference and not a disease, you’ll treat it differently. Instead of spending your time and money looking for a cure, you’ll try to help autistic people navigate a neurotypical world. You’ll dedicate yourself to educating the public about the gifts and talents that autistic people have to offer, as well as the challenges they face. You’ll make it easier for others to accept autistic people for who they are, and you’ll work to eradicate stigmas and bogus information related to it. And that’s how you make autistic people’s lives better.

Lighten Up.

So lighten up on the autism stuff. People with autism already have enough to deal with. Don’t make them scapegoats as well—unless, of course, you want to deal with my daughter.

Scarborough Responds

Well, MSNBC has issued a statement from Joe Scarborough concerning his remarks yesterday linking the Aurora, Colorado, shooter to autism. Here’s what he said:

During a debate regarding the recent Colorado shootings, I suggested that the Aurora tragedy should make Americans focus more on mental health in this country. I also stated that my own experiences raising a son with Aspergers made me keenly aware of how important strong support systems are to those who might otherwise be isolated.

The growing Autism epidemic is a tremendous burden for children, parents and loved ones to endure. My call for increased funding and awareness for Autism and other mental health conditions was meant to support the efforts of those who work every day to improve the lives of Americans impacted. Those suggesting that I was linking all violent behavior to Autism missed my larger point and overlooked the fact that I have a wonderful, loving son with Aspergers. Perhaps I could have made my point more eloquently.

I look forward to continuing my work with wonderful organizations like Autism Speaks to provide badly needed support to millions of Americans who struggle with Autism every day.

Not the most convincing. And not really what the clip has him on record as having said. He does, however, concede a little bit of ground, admitting that “perhaps” he could have made his point more “eloquently.” Judging from the disconnect between the clip and his explanation of what he was trying to say, I don’t think eloquence is the problem. It’s more like he was lacking in clarity. I’m a fairly intelligent guy; I don’t think I’m so obtuse as to have missed his larger point. He just did a poor job of making it—if that is what he was trying to do.

Actually, if Scarborough had said what he claims to have meant, it would have been a pretty good thing. But I’m just having a hard time seeing it in that clip.

Others, in responding to the MSNBC/Scarborough statement, have latched on to words like “burden” and “epidemic,” but I don’t want to go there. Perhaps these are places where he could have been more eloquent or at least sensitive to families struggling with autism. But let’s face it. Autism is no picnic, and 1 in 88 sure sounds like an epidemic to me. Of course, I would never consider my children a burden, and the word “epidemic” makes ASD sound like the plague, but that’s a matter of semantics more than anything else.

I know that many organizations are still not satisfied, and some are continuing their call for a real apology. Me? I’m not holding my breath. Whatever damage has been done has already been done, and whatever reconciliation was going to occur has occurred. Instead of dwelling on this, I think I’ll just roll up my sleeves, get back to work, and keep enjoying my kids.

When Bloviators Bloviate

And I was having such a good day. I had learned that Ernie Els won the British Open, which prompted me to look more closely into his links with the autism community and to be really encouraged and inspired by his generosity. Plus, my little girl came home from a long weekend with her grandfather and seemed to have a very good time—just a couple of ASD flare-ups needing to be addressed. Plus, I was making good progress on a set od articles at work. Yes, things were going well.

But then I just had to do it. I just had to check in with Facebook one more time. And what did I find? Links to a video clip from MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough this morning. He was discussing Friday night’s shooting in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, trying to find sense in the horrendous events. Then in the course of the conversation, Scarborough offers these words of deep wisdom and insight:

As soon as I heard about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society. It happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale. I don’t know if that’s the case here, but it happens more often than not. People that can walk around in society, they can function on college campuses—they can even excel on college campuses—but are socially disconnected.

Then, as if to pour salt in the wound, Scarborough tells us that he has a son with Asperger syndrome. So I guess that means he’s qualified to make a long-distance provisional diagnosis of the shooter. And that he’s qualified to suggest that being on the autism spectrum makes you more likely to become a homicidal maniac.

What Was He Thinking?

Now it’s possible that Scarborough’s own journey with autism has been particularly challenging, and he is projecting his experience onto the whole autism community. I know of kids on the spectrum who seem to fit the kind of picture Scarborough painted—kids who stick to themselves, are socially awkward, and may be prone to violent melt downs.

But these people are far from the norm. And even those who tend to be more aggressive take out their aggression on themselves and their caregivers, not on perfect strangers. Not to mention that a melt down is pretty spontaneous. It’s not usually something four months in the making, involving elaborate booby traps and multiple purchases of ammunition on the Internet.

My real problem is that Scarborough stigmatized an entire population that is already suffering from a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice. As the father of a child on the autism spectrum, he should know better. As a professional journalist, he should know better. But he couldn’t resist the temptation to shoot off his mouth. By his unfettered logorrhea not only did he end up espousing an indefensible theory; he gave people another baseless reason to be afraid of people on the spectrum and to treat them as a separate class, “others” who are just weird enough to shoot up a whole movie theater.

No, They’re Not.

No, people on the autism spectrum are not more prone to violent crimes than the general population.

No, people on the autism spectrum are not sociopaths. There is no correlation between ASD and mass murder.

No, people on the autism spectrum are not retarded—even if some of them do suffer from mental retardation.

No, people on the autism spectrum are not automatons devoid of personal emotions and incapable of empathy—even if some struggle in expressing what is going on inside of them.

No, people on the autism spectrum are not just spoiled brats who need more parental discipline.

Send a Message.

So if this makes you uncomfortable in any way, follow this link. It will take you to an online petition asking that Scarborough retract his speculation and offer an apology to the autism community. He really does need to set the record straight, if only for the sake of his son.