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 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
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
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT