The Washington Post, which ran a story last week about how a new study is attempting to tie autism to serial killing. The Post published the article even though researchers involved were quick to point out that their work was nowhere near complete. And for those who had the patience to read through to the end, it also became clear that the study was based on some very spurious techniques (such as looking at certain historic killers and speculating about their lack of eye contact, their inability to empathize). To its credit, the Post quoted The Autism Society of America, a longtime advocacy group with this response: “To imply or suggest that some linkage exists is wrong and is harmful to more than 1.5 million law-abiding, nonviolent and wonderful individuals who live with autism every day.” Yet the poisonous headline talking about “significant statistics” — which they were not — was probably enough for most people.
A few days passed, and then came the horrific Santa Barbara massacre, where the killer targeted a sorority in his sick attempt to punish women for rejecting him. Like everyone else, I’ve felt lacerated by Michael Martinez, a victim’s father, and his fiery rage at the vacuum of Congressional leadership, into which so much NRA money has flowed. As we all try to make sense and even solve this problem, people start thinking about what went wrong. Why didn’t they do anything about this young man’s arsenal of weapons? Why didn’t the parents do more to help? Couldn’t anyone see that this student was very, very sick? Through all of this, there have been questions about diagnosis. Was the young man on the autism spectrum? Or did he have some kind of mental illness? What was it that caused the snap?
Right away there is a rush to explain somehow. The autism advocates divorce violence from the disability. Autism is neurological, not psychological. Autism can have co-occurring disabilities, like intellectual delay or sensory, communicative, or behavioral challenges. But autism does not lead to violence.
There are so many reasons that this tragedy happened, and yet there will be no one answer. That’s something that we humans hate. From the beginning of time we have wanted explanations for why. Why the crops fail. Why we are here. Why children die.
How could this happen? We don’t know. But that is so unsatisfying. What do we do?
1) Learn from the killing. Now we know that children and loved ones who seem to have changed for the worse are worth looking into. It is never to early to get help. We also need to monitor them for improvement, or lack thereof. Make sure they are taking their meds, make sure they are not collecting weapons.
2) Advocate for tougher gun laws. Even if later on we find out that this did not work, shouldn’t we give credence to the possibility that more rigorous background checks and limiting certain types of weaponry in the country might help? Perhaps the NRA can meet with Mr. Martinez and then see if they are as certain of themselves. Maybe the NRA can also think about whether the right to live, to not be shot to death, is as important as the right to bear arms? I am not being facetious. I understand the NRA’s insistence on the Second Amendment. I am begging them to be more flexible in the face of growing serial violence from guns.
3) Bolster our access to mental health care. Insurance companies should not make it so tough to get help.
4) Fight the stigma that mental illness — and perhaps autism — carry. Remind ourselves that we cannot turn into lynch mobs informed by our uneducated gut feelings. Keep educating the public that murder is wrong, but mental illness is something that can be helped.
5) Continue to understand all the different forms evil takes. Cultural misogyny is one that we now have to face.
6) Pray for those in pain. Reach out, connect.