Susan's Blog

Friday, April 20, 2007

What Happened in That Family?

How do we make sense of the tragedy in Virginia? I don’t know. Like Columbine and all the shootings that have occurred, in Boston and elsewhere recently, there is no sense to it. People look for a reason, such as “gang vendetta,” “desperation,” “miserable childhood,” or “mental illness,” but nothing will satisfy. Maybe it helps a little to understand they why’s of a tragedy. Perhaps it does, simply because it allows people the chance to talk about it, and I am a believer in talking. I think that forming the words in your mind and then in your mouth, getting them out into the air, makes them and their content a tangible thing, almost, and allows you to look at it. I know that I have the voracious need to talk about everything that I think about, to write it down or to talk about it to Ned or a friend, or to myself while driving. I have to say the words and hear them in order to fully digest them.

This is why I think therapy is a truly wonderful thing. Therapy really helps. Maybe not right away. But it helps you get a full understanding of your behaviors and thought processes, because you hear yourself reflected by your therapist. People judge themselves for being in therapy as being self-indulgent, ridiculous, etc. They hate the fact that they are spending money on talking to another human being. And for not even a full hour; a 50-minute hour! How insulting. How degrading.

But actually, therapy is one of the most life-affirming acts a person can make. Understanding ourselves and working to become better people helps make the world a better place. Looking within at all the alleged ugliness and coming to terms with it, that is a beautiful, strengthening thing. Oh sure, you’re thinking, if you’ve got the cash and the time. Well, I don’t know but most people can find 50 minutes at some point during the week, or every two weeks. And as for money — well I can’t help you there, but I do know that there are sliding scales and that many things are possible if we set our minds to doing them. I don’t mean to be dismissive; I know that I am fortunate that my healthcare covers therapy. Many people’s insurance covers therapy and yet they still do not go. But why? Why are matters of the head deemed less important than, say, if you had a lung or heart problem?

I wonder why it was that the Virginia shooter’s family claimed that although Cho was diagnosed with autism at age 8, they did not get him help because they “couldn’t afford it.” Surely some kind of autism “therapies” would be made available through the school system, if indeed the child had a bona fide autism diagnosis. But the fact that according to CNN, the great-aunt called Cho an “idiot,” when referring to the tragedy he caused, and the fact that FOX News claims another relative said he was “glad Cho was dead,” makes me think that there was more going on in that family than lack of financial resources. It sounds to me like lack of understanding and hatred were going on, regardless of Cho’s diagnosis.

Of course tragedies and anomalies occur. But it seems to me that a struggling family, wrestling with finances as well as two very different cultures, an abhorrence for aberration, and a very needy child, is a recipe for disaster. Certainly not a disaster of this magnitude, but real trouble nonetheless.

One thing I feel pretty certain about: therapy, whether for communication purposes or for emotional work, would probably have helped this young man. The right help would have averted this disaster.

And another thing: it was not, definitely not, autism that led to this horror. Autism does not make people killers. Sorry, FOX, CNN, et al. Do your homework. It is the lack of supports and proper healthcare that turn people out into the streets before they are truly ready to be there.



— added by Laura Cottington on Friday, April 20, 2007 at 11:19 am

Thank you. You are always the voice of reason. The whole media Autism blitz has truly made me sick.
I feel so sad for EVERYONE involved – including the “Shooter”.

— added by Drama Mama on Friday, April 20, 2007 at 12:12 pm

Cho attended Fairfax County schools, one of the best school systems in the nation. People move here because of the services they can get for their autistic children via the school system. Cost to them? Zero. My daughter is in sixth grade and has two or three autistic children in her class. They integrate them as much as they can into a regular school setting with or without an aide. My son, at 3 years old, attends a full-day ABA-based Preschool Autism Class through the public school system. If Cho’s parents had told the administrators of his diagnosis, surely he would have been given the help that he so desperately needed. Sounds to me like Cho’s life was a tragedy all the way around.

— added by Wendy on Friday, April 20, 2007 at 1:19 pm

I think a huge part of the reason they didn’t seek treatment for Cho was cultural. Either that or language barrier, or a combination of the two. In some families, it is considered “shameful” to be anything deviant from the norm.

— added by ASDmomNC on Friday, April 20, 2007 at 2:12 pm

He sounded more psychotic/schizophrenic than autistic from the things he said on his messages. In any case, it is very hard to get an idea of what the family was like, just from hearsay.

I’ve seen many American families that take years to find out resources for their autistic children. How hard do you think it would be for a non-English speaking immigrant family to navigate the mind boggling bureacratic maze that we all have to go through to secure treatment for our kids?

Besides, he was probably diagnosed before IDEA and might have been high functioning enough that he’d have fallen through the cracks.

— added by Another Autism Mom on Friday, April 20, 2007 at 2:48 pm

Wendy, Fairfax County or not, 15 years ago there were No autistic services in schools. They wouldn’t even teach to the symptoms, with or without a Dx, because they didn’t know what to Do. ABA was a whisper among those “in the know.” You are lucky to be in a good school district, and I hope your good fortunte continues.

Most of the time no one – not schools, doctors, or therapists – even knew what autism was. It has only been about 4-5 years that autism awareness has been in the mainstream, so to speak. Last year was actually the first year I’ve ever seen anything BIG going on (thanks to the Wrights). We had been to many, many doctors and children’s hospitals and no one knew what my son’s problem was – for 10 years this went on!!! He’s 14 now and finally able to get services at school – but we could not get them without that Dx.

So odds are that Cho never got help at all. He was in his 20s and out of the system, so who was going to help him? And as asdmomnc said, the cultural thing could definitely be a reason. My son’s SM is Asian, and she talks about him like that all the time (“idiot” and that sort of thing). And she’s a COLLEGE PROFESSOR, so go figure.

Hopefully all this media blitz will enable discussion on getting ALL the schools quality autism support, in getting services after school, getting the state to revamp their system, and maybe to talk about the comorbidities that can go along with autism but aren’t seen until kids become teens. If any of that happens, then the media BS was worth it.

— added by Moi ;) on Friday, April 20, 2007 at 8:58 pm

“It is the lack of supports and proper healthcare that turn people out into the streets before they are truly ready to be there.”

Hammer. Nail. Head.

Preventative health care in this country does not happen. The insurance industry will not pay for it. We’re too cheap to save ourselves.

— added by Someone Said on Friday, April 20, 2007 at 11:20 pm

Susan, Really nice analysis. Thank you. I have been grappling with thoughts about this for days . . .

There are so many issues . . . hand gun access, and easy credit to buy them, lack of social supports, impotence of the university’s health center, limited mental health resources, cultural differences and shame about psychological and neurological difference, bullying, prescription and monitoring of SSRI’s (assumed).

So many ways in which Cho’s life course is a story of societal failure as much as social failure. Heartbreaking.

— added by mothersvox on Friday, April 20, 2007 at 11:34 pm

I think I remember hearing Grinker say that Korea’s word for autism was “mother.” Sound a bit old fashioned/archaic? I heard Grinker on NPR last January. Anyone have the book and can read up on the Asian/Autism perception? It might shed some light on this dark story. IF IF IF the boy was actually autistic.

— added by Kim Rossi Stagliano on Saturday, April 21, 2007 at 7:23 am

As a Korean-American and someone who loves teaching children with autism, I felt the need to clarify some things.

1. The Korean word for autism is NOT mother. “Chapae” or (japae) means inwardly, within one’s own self, much like the word “autism.”

2. It is extremely difficult to literally translate Korean into English and maintain the correct meaning. The Korean word for “idiot” does not have the same connotations in English.

3. In Korea, free special education was not available when the Chos immigrated here. (Not sure if they have it even now.) I’m positive Cho’s parents had no idea that help may be available to them at no cost. They probably didn’t speak enough English to even ask.

4. In my experience, it is extremely unusual for a child to immigrate at the age of 8 and not learn the language fluently within a year or two. With no medical records to review, it’s not possible for us to know for sure if the autism diagnosis was accurate, but he definitely had some learning difficulties.

5. In Asian cultures, the entire extended family (and sometimes the entire nation) takes credit for the success of one person. Similarly, they also accept responsibility for the misdeeds of one person. It is culturally acceptable (even expected) for a family member to denounce the family member who has brought shame to his loved ones.

— added by Anonymous on Saturday, April 21, 2007 at 8:10 am

Moi – Without doing any sort of research to actually figure out what kind of education Fairfax County provided to those with special needs 20-30 years ago, I will say that I met a woman last week whose son is now in his early 30’s. When he was diagnosed with autism at a very young age, she and her family moved to Fairfax County because that was THE county to move to for special education needs. She explained to me that there were only a handful of schools that catered to these children and she had to fight a lot for services but the services WERE there.

I think Anonymous brings up a lot of very good points. I wish a prominent news organization would interview a Korean-American to get just this kind of information out to the public. And like he/she says, it’s possible that the parents didn’t even realize there was free help available (but what about his teachers? – didn’t anyone think, “Hmmmm…maybe we should get this kid evaluated and get him some services”).

Like I said on my blog, I am horrified by what happened but I feel sorry for the things Cho went through as a child – an autism diagnosis that was ignored, subsequent teasing and bullying by his classmates, a speech delay exacerbated by a move to another country with a TOTALLY different language, no one fully recognizing that this child/young man needed serious help.

I definitely agree with Moi’s last paragraph. It would be a shame that such a tragedy had to happen for things to improve for our children. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

— added by Wendy on Saturday, April 21, 2007 at 9:11 am

Anonymous – what connotations does the word “idiot” actually have in Korean? In any case, I am sure my son’s College Professor SM knows *exactly* what she’s saying about my kid…. :O

— added by Moi ;) on Saturday, April 21, 2007 at 9:55 pm

Just to comment on your last comment Susan. Why didn’t the teachers notice that there was something wrong and get him tested or some help. Even now, where I live up here in eastern Canada, we have teachers who couldn’t give a flying f*** about a child with any kind of issues. Even with my son’s diagnosis made by a team at a childdren’s hosptial we are now struggling with a teacher that believes we are all wrong and that what my son is doing is manipulating people to get them to do what he wants. He is 9. She has taken her case to the minister of education because she feels that we, as parents, the school and the school board are harrassing and abusing her by trying to make her support my son. While we have been able to work around her while trying to have her fired we wonder what would happen if we didn’t have the resources to pursue this. Would my son’s need be ignored and sweep under the rug for the next person to find and maybe deal with it? In my opinion I have found that there are some great teachers out there but there are also some people that should never have been given a license to even go near our children.


— added by lizziehoop on Sunday, April 22, 2007 at 9:46 am

I was one that was shocked to see that this child (likely immature in many ways) left to cope alone with the social complexities of college. Where were the support services? The colleges have them. That he did not have an IEP to help and protect him in middle and high school is bad enough. No speech and language services? But the expectation that he could survive college amazes me. He woke up every day knowing he would fail at almost everything and faced a “graduation” to no possible future. This incident better be reason to diagnose learning and developmental disorders early on. I hope, too, that parents who ignore teachers and counselors advice to get an IEP or 504 plan for their children because of the “stigma of special ed” realize that they are failing a child who needs help. Thanks for the great article.

— added by Anonymous on Sunday, April 22, 2007 at 11:21 pm

I am a special educator for children with Emotional Disturbances. As many of you know, Emotional Disturbance is not a diagnosis. After working with this population for about ten years, I’ve come to the conclusion that these children are Emotionally Disturbed (ED) because they have not recieved the services they truly need. Most of my students are either on the Autism spectrum (undiagnosed but soon to be), have learning disabilities (undiagnosed but soon to be), have other mental illnesses and/or have been severly abused/neglected and their disturbing behavior is the only way they’ve figured out how to communicate and cry for help.

My frustration mostly lies with the fact that many of my students, I believe would not be in my classroom had the previous teachers taken the time to figure out why these children were acting out. There is ALWAYS a reason or “function” for their behavior. But, it’s not the general educator’s fault for not taking the time becuase frankly with a class size of 20-30 students, there is no way they could accomodate these childrens’ needs.

So again, it comes down to a systematic breakdown and lack of funding and resources. Let me mention another fact. In order for a student to recieve help under IDEA, their behavior must be impeding with their learning. Unfortunely, sometimes, children with Autism do not struggle accademically in school so the school does not legally have to do anything about it.

First, there needs to be more education for general education teachers, administrators and parents in regards to mental illnesses and autism. Second, there needs to be more funding to hire a specialist to come in and assess these students. There is no way a general education teacher has the time to assess these students when their responcibility is to the class as a whole.

— added by Anonymous on Monday, April 23, 2007 at 1:04 am