Skip to main content

Leave autism out of mass shootings

By Alex Plank, Special to CNN
updated 2:17 PM EST, Sat December 22, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alex Plank: After Newtown shooting, some people say autism is linked to violence
  • Plank: These speculations are needless, untrue and hurtful
  • He says people with autism are ethical but have trouble reading social signals
  • Plank: We don't need more senseless finger-pointing at an entire community

Editor's note: Alex Plank is the founder of WrongPlanet.net, an online community for people to discuss autism.

(CNN) -- After the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a parade of self-appointed experts tried to insinuate that people with autism are prone to inexplicable acts of violence because they lack the ability for empathy and social connection. This is because the shooter, Adam Lanza, had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.

These speculations are needless, untrue and hurtful.

I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when I was 9 years old. I had a lot of anxiety when I was in school, not because I have autism but because other kids would often bully and ridicule me. I was a smart kid, but I was very socially awkward. Thankfully, my parents were very supportive and helped me get through many dark days.

I have Asperger's; I am just like you

Alex Plank
Alex Plank

I got in trouble in elementary school for flapping my hands and twirling. I even got in trouble for sitting in my chair strangely. When the Columbine High School massacre occurred, my music teacher told the class to be nicer to me because, as she said, "look what can happen when kids are bullied." That really upset and embarrassed me. The comment made me feel as though I had more potential for violence, which is clearly false.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In high school, I decided that I wanted to make contact with other kids who had been diagnosed with autism and were cast out by their own peer groups and looking for support. With my friend Dan Grover, we built WrongPlanet.net, a community for people who wanted to share their personal experiences with autism. We now have more than 70,000 registered members from around the world.

After the shootings in Newtown, as I often do when a major news event occurs, I immediately went to my online community to see what other people were saying. One member asked, "How long before the media paints the gunman as a quiet loner with Asperger Syndrome traits?" As we now know, it didn't take too long.

Groups: Autism not to blame for violence

The same thing has happened before, like in the Colorado theater shooting, when Joe Scarborough irresponsibly speculated that the shooter, James Holmes, might have been "on the autism scale." He later clarified his comments, saying he did not mean to link autism with violent behavior.

What Is Asperger's Syndrome?
Children with autism are 'less violent'

As the Newtown news unfolded, I noticed a huge traffic spike to our online community. When I checked the servers, I realized that people were finding the website by Googling search terms such as "autistic killers," "asperger's and criminal behavior" and "aspergers shooter." That gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I only hoped that the searches indicated that people wanted to find out the truth: that autism is not connected with violent acts.

Most people with autism who I know of are deeply sensitive and ethical; we just have trouble reading social signals. Research has also shown that we are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. If anything, those with autism are more likely to be bullied or treated with scorn because we are a little different.

Fortunately, not everyone has been listening to some of the so-called experts who are implying that autism has something to do with Lanza's horrible act. A chorus of intelligent voices, including CNN's Sanjay Gupta and Anderson Cooper, New York Times reporter Amy Harmon, author John Robison and Ari Ne'eman, the first openly autistic White House appointee, has done well to dispel the misconceptions.

Troubling legacy of Sandy Hook may be backlash against kids with autism

But the repetition of damaging stereotypes means more needs to be done to address the myths and stigma around autism, which puts people who are already at a high risk for bullying in even more danger.

I was really touched when I saw the photo of Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old boy with autism who died in the arms of his special-needs aide, Anne Marie Murphy, in Newtown.

In the face of such terrible tragedy, we don't need more senseless finger-pointing at an entire community of people. We need more than ever to find our common humanity.

Remembering the victims

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Plank.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT