Susan's Blog

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

No Wholesale Blame; Instead, Reframe

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?
Some thoughts:

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 DBS 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.






As far as I can discover, in literally ALL the reported incidents of murderers who were autistic, sooner or later it’s always turned out that the murderers were on a LOT of antidepressants (usually the ones that are known to have seriously untoward mood-changes as a possible side-effect) and other neurologically active meds.
I literally have NEVER been able to find an “autism murder” news-story where the murderer was NOT on some combo of lots and lots of prescribed (or other) psychoactives at the time … But it’s specifically the autism that gets the big, alarming coverage in the press.

If ethics allow disclosing a murderer’s neurological disability, shouldn’t ethics in such cases ALSO include disclosing the meds he was on? Just a “modest proposal” …

— added by Kate Gladstone on Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at 1:16 pm

For the record:
I am NOT one of those “Meds-Are-EVIL!” people — the meds I take myself include at least one with psychoactive effects. I merely wanted to point out that, when there is more than one thing going on in all these murder cases, it’s disheartening to see just the “one thing” — autism — get the preponderance of the coverage, the preponderance of the gossip, and so on.

— added by Kate Gladstone on Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at 1:19 pm

I think that this is a terrible issue for sure. Anyway, Susan I just started to read your very first book “Making Peace With Autism” and I must say I admire and respect your words and descriptions of the various events and situations that you and your family found yourselves in. You paint such a complete picture! Great!

— added by Daniel Berman on Monday, June 23, 2014 at 12:40 pm

The media’s obsession with the idea between an autism-violence link seems to derive from the fact that autistics are perhaps the media’s most secure scapegoat. If we were to blame misogyny for the Santa Barbara massacre, that would be, as Connor from the Connor Chronicles pointed out, hypocritical considering our advertising from everything from lingerie to toothpaste. Blaming gun-laws would perhaps alienate the NRA, who pumps in so much money for the media’s endorsements of anti-gun law politician’s campaigns. If they were to blame the lack of mental health care, then you also have to consider the insurance companies unwilling to provide for mental illness who also fund many anti-gun law politician’s campaigns. I think back to the words of Jesse from Diary of a Mom, “Us and them.” The neurotypical community is the media’s “Us” and autistic people like myself are the “them.” That being said, we all ought to realize how unobjective and pathetic the media’s connection between autism and violence are, and it is sad that many of us news-viewers do not think, consider, or do our research on this.

— added by Ben Edwards on Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 8:05 pm

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