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