stepping into the void

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History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

~

Following the horrific shooting in an Aurora Colorado movie theater in July, Joe Scarborough made the outrageous assumption, with absolutely no information to confirm it, that the shooter must be ‘on the autism scale.’

That day, I wrote the following to Joe.

Dear Joe Scarborough,

Autism is not dangerous.

THIS, however, is.

Ignorance is dangerous.

Television newscasters diagnosing people they’ve never met is dangerous.

A father of a child with Asperger’s who would jump to the conclusion that (an obviously gravely disturbed) mass murderer is autistic is not only dangerous, but appalling.

Assuming that a young man whom you have never met (whom you presume to be autistic because he’s been described by other people who also have never met him as a loner) would become murderous because he doesn’t have (your definition of) a “loving family to support him” is dangerous.

Lack of support, understanding and compassion for autistic people – all of which are eclipsed in a heartbeat by the kind of fear that you have just recklessly promoted – are dangerous.

Autistic people are not any more nor any less dangerous than their neurotypical peers.

Jumping to conclusions which insinuate that they are can be lethal.

Autism is not dangerous. But words can be. Please, Joe, think before you speak.

Jess Wilson

~

– May the families of the victims of this horrific crime somehow find peace in the days and weeks ahead. My prayers are with them.

A few readers questioned why I would focus on Joe’s remarks and asked if giving them attention could actually exacerbate, rather than mitigate, their effect. This, in part, was my response.

Mr Scarborough made a gross generalization that hurts my child. And yours. And all of us. My girl fights an uphill battle every day just to live in this world that isn’t designed for her. She does it with grace and poise and humor and unadulterated, unbridled love and by God, how dare he saddle her with society’s fear that she might just come unglued and kill us all?

How dare he?

This story was not just on the news, it now IS the news. It’s out there. This idea that autism and social isolation equal violence is out there. And someone has to explain, from a platform as big as Morning Joe’s that it’s simply not true.

 -
I begged the leaders of the world’s largest autism advocacy organization to make a statement in response to Joe’s. A strong one. In fact, I wrote one for them, to use as a starting point. I talked to their leadership. I pleaded. I cried.
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Eventually, they issued a watered-down, political response. They promised further action, further discussion with Joe. That has not yet come to pass.
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It is hard to be surprised that it’s happening again. That the next monstrous act is being linked to autism long before there is any reliable information to affirm a diagnosis. That major news outlets are talking about autism and violence in one breath. With nothing in between and nothing after. Nothing to mitigate the effect that has on those who hear it. Who make a connection. Who believe it. There’s no reason that they wouldn’t when no one with a platform as big as the one they’re seeing it on is stepping into the void with the facts.
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Fear becomes truth. Misconceptions and misperceptions and outright lies become the popular zeitgeist. Autistic people who have struggled for so long to be understood — who have finally, painstakingly made strides in changing age-old misconceptions about who they are – who have begun to be seen by  society in all of the glory of their complete human dimension are suddenly and terrifyingly thrown back at warp speed to the days of Boo Radley – to a time when it’s okay to channel society’s fear into that which is different – to point fingers at that difference and to connect it to evil – to blame it for incomprehensibly monstrous acts and in so doing to make them the target of all of our sadness and anger and desperate, aching fear that it could happen again.
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The media reports back on itself. The news itself becomes its own story. How many times have we heard in the past twenty-four hours. “As we reported in the wake of the Aurora tragedy …”
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Every time that we let this go, every time that those with a platform to make a change stand by in silence, fear grows.
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Every time that good people say nothing, my daughter, my friends — ALL OF US — pay the price.
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Please, use your voice in any way that you can.
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Don’t allow one tragedy to give birth to another.
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May God hold the victims of this nightmare close and bring peace to their families in the coming days.

**

ASAN Statement on Media Reports Regarding Newtown, CT Shooting

December 14, 2012

In response to recent media reports that the perpetrator of today’s shooting in Newton, Connecticut may have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with a psychiatric disability, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) issued the following statement today:

“Our hearts go out to the victims of today’s shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and their families. Recent media reports have suggested that the perpetrator of this violence, Adam Lanza, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or with another psychiatric disability. In either event, it is imperative that as we mourn the victims of this horrific tragedy that commentators and the media avoid drawing inappropriate and unfounded links between autism or other disabilities and violence. Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. Should the shooter in today’s shooting prove to in fact be diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with another disability, the millions of Americans with disabilities should be no more implicated in his actions than the non-disabled population is responsible for those of non-disabled shooters.

Today’s violence was the act of an individual. We urge media, government and community leaders to speak out against any effort to spuriously link the Autistic or broader disability community with violent crime. Autistic Americans and other groups of people with disabilities persist in facing discrimination and segregation in school, the workplace and the general community. In this terrible time, our society should not further stigmatize our community. As our great nation has so many times in the past, let us come together to both mourn those killed by acts of heinous murder and defend all parts of our country from the scourge of stigma and prejudice.”

Media inquiries regarding this shooting may be directed to ASAN at info@autisticadvocacy.org

Thank you, ASAN, for once again being a voice of reason and a true advocate for my girl amid the chaos. 

LINKS TO FACTS

When Children Die, It’s Time to Grieve and Reflect, Not to Scapegoat by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Edited to add:

I am very pleased to say that we have begun to see some actual journalists stepping into to the void to report the TRUTH, dispel the myths about autism and educate their audiences. Particular thanks to Anderson Cooper, Dr Sanjay Gupta and Soledad O’Brien for leading the way, along with ABC News and USA Today. Thank you also to Autism Speaks and GRASP for issuing statements as well. 

~
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. ~ Dr Martin Luther King

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20 thoughts on “stepping into the void

  1. Keep saying it Jess…write letters, make phone calls, stand up for your girl and for all of our children…tell us what to do and who to call and if you must what to say…keep it up PLEASE

    • beth, i will do what i can, but you don’t need me to tell you what to do. follow your gut and speak up when you hear something that you know is wrong. we can only change the world by changing hearts — one at a time. xo

  2. Thank you for putting this up, Jess. Thank you for stating it, once again, so eloquently. David and I have been raging against these statements.

    Love you,
    Mom

  3. I do remember for a time that John Ogdren committed a murder at Lincoln Sudbury, some people in the local Boston media negatively stereotyped people on the spectrum as well. This could be a great reason why I don’t like most commercial news stations and prefer more public broadcasting news outlets like NPR and PBS since they are less likely to engage in fearmongering of certain groups of people.

  4. I was greatly encouraged by a conversation I just watched on MSNBC. There was a criminologist being interviewed about the “profile” of a mass murderer. Although the reporter brought autism into the conversation, the criminologist carefully negated each thing the reporter said. He sort of shrugged and said, “Lots of people in America are socially isolated and depressed. Lots of people have personality disorders. And they haven’t gone out and killed ANYONE. If this young man also had autism, Asperger’s syndrome, it is a coincidence. One thing has nothing to do with the other. The reporter said, “REALLY?!” The criminologist said, “Absolutely.” I think I like this criminologist.

  5. Unfortunately the press today by and large, seems to make statements and offer information that is neither valid nor has it been researched before they open their mouths or sit to write a story. There seems to be a race to the story with or without the facts.
    In the case of Scarborough, he would likely be the first in line to cut funding for mental health programs that might help to avoid these incidents, all in the name of lowering taxes. He fashions himself an “expert” in many things as he still lives in his 90″s congressional position. His hubris is unlimited and it’s too bad that he has such a strong voice in the media.
    It is also too bad that the very people who should “SPEAK” out on these issues, Autism Speaks, is filled with pusillanimous leaders who are more afraid of their job security than speaking out to inform the public. They should be lobbying the government and hitting the Sunday shows to illuminate this issue and rebut the Scarboughs in this world.
    I would suggest that if they are not overt and strong in support of this issue, they should lose their positions.
    I am so proud of you Jessica.
    Love,
    Dad.

  6. Autism nor Asperger’s should not be linked with this crime. This is a sad case of media sensationalism. No one should even hint that Autism is in the slightest bit related to this horrific situation.

  7. I have been sending this to every media outlet I can:

    Open letter to all news organizations covering the tragedy in Newtown, CT:

    Let me begin by saying that my heart is absolutely breaking for the parents of the victims and all those affected, either directly or indirectly, by the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and shock, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all those parents, grandparents, families, students and teachers.

    The rest of this letter is directed at the media and their coverage of the events, specifically the speculation about the shooter’s mental status. The words autism and Asperger’s has been thrown around a lot, and as the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, this unsubstantiated speculation that the shooter had some sort of autism spectrum disorder has me absolutely livid.

    What exactly are you basing this speculation on? A few interviews with people that claim to have known the shooter in the past, wherein they describe him as “socially awkward,” yet “highly intelligent?” Wow. I wish you had been around when I was going through the years-long process in search of a diagnosis for my son. I never knew that diagnosis of a highly diverse, extremely complicated neurological developmental disorder could have been just as easily diagnosed by those two criteria, and by a layperson at that. Sarcasm aside, you must consider your words more carefully and think about the damage they could potentially do to those of us who are living day in and day out with this condition.

    I understand that human nature drives us to reach for an explanation – any explanation – of what could drive a person to commit such a heinous act. I also understand that as caring human beings, most all of us quickly jump to the “a person has to be mentally ill, or just ‘not right in the head’ to do such a thing” rationale. I get that. I feel the same way. However, please take care before you try to label the perpetrator with a specific diagnosis – most especially with no evidence to back it up. By doing that, you potentially harm those who, in fact, do carry said diagnosis by creating a false picture to the general public of what that label means.

    Autism, and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) such as Asperger’s Syndrome, have NOT been associated with violent crime, as most experts will tell you. In fact, while watching the news coverage over the past 24 hours, every time I have seen a reporter interview psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals, and the reporter brings up the speculative diagnosis of ASD and the shooter, each mental health professional immediately attempts to explain that firstly – we don’t know this person had this disorder and, secondly, ASD is NOT associated with violent, much less sociopathic, behavior. So why do you insist on trying to force this issue?

    As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, thereby a member of the “autism community,” I am extremely angry that the media would continue to do this. We (the autism community) have been working tirelessly for years to not only raise awareness of what this diagnosis is and what it means in the communities we live in, the schools our children attend, and in many cases even the families we raise those children in – all the while living the day-to-day life, and sometimes gut-wrenching work, of raising and advocating for our children. PLEASE don’t make our work even harder by continuing to speculate that the person who murdered 20 innocent children “might” have been autistic – especially with no evidence to that fact.

    Our children work hard and struggle every day with stigma they don’t deserve. Don’t add more of this to the load that is already on their little shoulders. Don’t undo the years of work we have done to raise awareness. If you want to do the work of informing the public, then educate yourself first.

  8. Anderson Cooper right now is talking about how autism is not a personality disorder and that autism does not give violent tendencies. Thought you would like to hear a positive. <3 Anderson!

  9. The Hartford Courant (in CT) also followed up the “he may be on the spectrum” statement, with the debunking of a link. Go responsible journalism.

  10. I could not agree more with all you are saying Jess ! My own immediate reaction was total outrage upon hearing the remarks on TV equating Autism with this crime………..& I have put it out there. Thank goodness for the voices refuting this !

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