Saturday, December 15, 2012

How One Mother with Asperger Syndrome Grieves Sandy Hook Elementary Victims

Today, December 14, 2012, I got a text about four minutes before I walked into my son's school to play the piano for a winter program. The text said that 18 (then up to 20) children had been killed at an elementary school, not unlike my son's. Children the age of the children I would be making music with in a few minutes. I was in shock. The texts I was receiving came from my dear brother, who has small children of his own. Since I was not online or near any media sources, he wrote to me what I was seeing on breaking news, and we texted together, as parents, about how horrible, how unthinkable, this heinous act was. His children were with him; mine was in school, and I had to resist an overwhelming impulse to sign him out and leave.

Then I had to go into the school. I told myself that I would not let any children see the anguish I was feeling for the Sandy Hook Elementary children, their parents, for the principal and the teachers. This was the way the adults (and some were just finding out after I was already in the building) protected both the children (and ourselves), for the rest of the school day.

President Obama, offering condolences on behalf of the nation, said "I know there's not a parent in American who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief I do."

Not a parent in America. Overwhelming grief is what I am feeling, as a parent, a community member, a volunteer in my child's school.

I would like to say that I am grieving just like every other parent in America. I am not. I would like to say that there will be time later to write about the media speculation that the shooter had Asperger syndrome (as well as a personality disorder and OCD) all unverified but being bandied about on any number of news outlets and web sites. There is not; the time is now.

Whether or not the shooter turns out to be on the autism spectrum, this appalling act was committed by an individual person who made a choice. The choice may or may not have anything to do with the killer's neurology, and it is not likely that it does. It has never been shown, and won't be now as a result of this tragedy, that any particular neurology is more prone to committing truly horrendous crimes, including "typical" people.

I just want to grieve without having to worry about a different set of children -- children who are growing up on the autism spectrum, or with atypical neurologies, with mental health conditions, who are not prone to violence by virtue of having these disabilities, but who could be negatively affected by assumptions that "all these people are dangerous" or even that "all these kids are going to grow up to be no good." (And, yes, I have had parents tell me that someone somewhere along the line has said just that to them about their child.) I would like to be able to grieve just as other parents all over America are doing, without the added baggage of the media's portrayal of Autistics as "dangerous loners" (or of "dangerous loners" as Autistics).

As an Autistic mother, though, I have to think about the effect of media on children with disabilities and mental health conditions, children who may be frightened about their futures because of a determinism that says "You might grow up to be a killer if you are Autistic." The media is doing it again, and so I don't have the luxury of grieving like parents all over America. I have to care about and care for, people with disabilities who are targeted by sensationalist media reports, as well as, at the same time, feel the sorrow I do for the parents, family members, and community in Newtown, Connecticut, that is stunned by the events of today.

The last time the media did the "speculation that the killer is Autistic" thing was the Aurora shootings, and it was completely unfounded. I wrote about that here, and said something that applies to the media coverage of todays' tragedy:
"First, and most important, we need to mourn the victims of the senseless shooting Stop thinking about the killer for a moment and remember the victims and their loved ones.

"When crimes like this happen, it is in some ways easier to turn toward the perpetrator, speculating about the person's mental health, life history, and motives. It is much easier than thinking about the dead victims, the victims in the ICU, the people whose lives have been shattered, the stunned, crying, angry families who will never see their loved ones again. It is so much easier to turn away from their pain and to become fascinated, fixated on the killer."
Most people who have Asperger syndrome are not murderous in nature, and are as appalled by this event as everyone else. Most people with any number of mental health conditions also are not murderous. The thought makes for exciting media coverage for people who can't see that another group of people is being hurt. Ultimately, it won't matter what "disorder" Adam Lanza had, since "having something" can't be shown to be the reason he committed one of the worst crimes in our nation's history.

I am now going off to take my own advice for the first time today, having some time to myself after being with children all day. I am going to remember the victims and their loved ones, some of whom may have had Asperger's syndrome themselves, but were gunned down just the same. I am letting myself grieve, if I can, just like, and with, parents all over America.

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A version of this post was published at paulacdurbinwestbyautisticblog.blogspot.com