This wasn’t the post I planned to write next. But the tragic shooting in Newtown, CT has changed everyone’s perspective, and has hopefully changed some of the things we originally wanted or needed to say. As someone put it, other things can wait for awhile.
First of all, before we get to anything else in this post, let me say that my heart breaks for the victims and their families. I don’t understand how or why anyone could do this to children, particularly children so young. I mean, the majority of those children were kindergartners–the youngest and arguably most innocent of the elementary age group. They left their homes excited because Christmas was coming. Their biggest worry was probably whether Santa Claus got their letters. And now, they’re not coming home. I am comforted by my belief that those same kids are with Jesus Christ today in Heaven, and I know He “will take care of Mom and Dad,” as the author of a beautiful poem in memory of the children put it. But I still wish I could hold those families until my arms fall off. I hate the fact that their joyous holidays have literally had a hole shot through them. And I pray for physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual healing for all involved.
Secondly, there have been some rumors floating around that the shooter, Adam Lanza, had autism or some other form of a disability, such as Asperger’s (which is still on the autism spectrum, but I tend to think of it as separate from other forms of autism). Let me say up front that one, no one knows this is true. Two, if it is, that’s not the point; the point is that twenty-six people are dead, and their families devastated. And three, autism or not, disability of any other kind or not, Adam Lanza, were he alive today, would need to face consequences for what he did. There is absolutely no excuse for what happened last Friday, and as we have discussed before on this blog, disability does not preclude discipline or consequences for wrong behavior. Yes, what is “wrong” in the context of disability can change; for example, it may be “wrong” for a child to throw things, but if that’s how the child is communicating, then we have a bigger issue and need to handle that. But in a case like this, disability is largely off the table.
Thirdly, I think now is a good time to examine a myth about disability that disturbs me more than perhaps any other, and it is, “People with disabilities don’t know right from wrong.” Yes, that myth exists, particularly for people whose disabilities are intellectual, on the autism spectrum, or said to affect their minds in any capacity. For example, a person with Down’s Syndrome who picks a flower out of a neighbor’s garden gets labeled a vandal or a thief. A person with autism who cannot read social cues is said to have no empathy whatsoever and accused of being unable to feel pain. People blithely call autism and other disabilities like it “mental illness,” either unaware of, or not caring about, the fact that disability and mental illness are two entirely different things. (That last comment actually came from someone in my local nail salon). Frankly, this kind of talk makes my blood boil, because it is untrue, and because it perpetuates the idea that people with disabilities, for one reason or another, do not “belong” in society or are dangers to themselves and others.
So, now that we’ve examined the myth, let’s talk about the truth. The truth is that for the most part, people with disabilities DO know right from wrong. Their concept may be rudimentary (for example, someone whose cognitive abilities are childlike may not yet understand some intricate ins and outs–often because nobody told them). But for most people with disabilities–most people, period–a concept is there, and it does get exercised. For example, that person with Down’s Syndrome may not know that “it’s okay to pick flowers in public, but not out of the neighbor’s garden.” But he or she probably understands it’s not okay to consciously take things that don’t belong to you.
And let’s go back to that person with autism who allegedly cannot express empathy, therefore allegedly cannot feel pain or understand it’s wrong to shoot people. (?????!!!!) Emily Willingham wrote a wonderful article about this, stating that whatever motivated the Newtown shooting, it wasn’t Asperger’s Syndrome. She draws a good distinction between the types of empathy people with autism are confronted with every day–cognitive empathy vs. emotional empathy. According to Willingham, “cognitive empathy” basically boils down to the ability to recognize subtle emotional changes in others through social cues and body language, among other cues. And yes, people with autism may not recognize those–even among other people with autism. The idea is that, because these cues are often very subtle, they’re tough to pick up on or misread. And I’d venture to say that people with autism aren’t the only ones who can’t always read those subtle cues. We often just don’t admit it because, horror of horrors, that would make us look “disabled.”
The other type of empathy Willingham talks about is emotional empathy, and people with autism often have no trouble expressing that. It’s based on the ability to read emotions (NOT tiny cues) and respond to them. For example, Willingham writes that her own eleven-year-old, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, responded to news of the shooting by turning away in his chair and drawing in on himself for several minutes. When he turned back to her, he was crying–and this boy, like many other boys, rarely cries. He also said to her that they needed to go and get his first-grade little brother from school, but, “Let’s not tell him what happened…it would make him anxious and scared.”
And yet, people continue to perpetuate the crock that people with autism are emotionless, just one meltdown away from becoming the next psychopath with a gun or a knife or, for crying in a bucket, a letter opener. Excuse me while I decide whether to laugh hysterically at the world’s stupidity, or vomit.
Now, let’s talk about the idea that disabilities are another form of mental illness. The easiest and simplest way to answer this myth is, WRONG! Autism in particular is not a mental illness. It is, on the most basic level, a sensory integration disorder that may manifest itself as social, emotional, or physical weaknesses. Once again, it does not mean the person with autism will one day “snap” and go on a rampage. Even disabilities that we tag as “mental disabilities,” such as cognitive impairment, Down’s, Fragile X, or others of their ilk, have been misnamed. The correct–not politically correct, simply correct–term for this type of disability is “intellectual disability.” These disabilities impair one’s cognitive functions and, to a degree, one’s understanding of certain concepts (though that, as we have discussed, is dependent on how much people choose to share with individuals who have these disabilities, out of an understanding of what they can truly process). An intellectual disability does not, and never will, automatically mean that person has a predilection for criminal behavior, and it’s time we stopped saying it does.
So, now that we know what and who ISN’T mentally ill, I want to add a note about what mental illness actually is, and who perpetuates it. Rosslyn Elliot, an author I read and whose books I thoroughly enjoy, summed this up nicely with her response to the now-viral “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” article. According to her, she’s seen a lot of mental illness in her time and knows what it is, and what it’s not. She uses two “axises” when defining mental illness. Axis One is the type of mental illness most of us are familiar with, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia largely controlled with medication and therpy, etc. People who have these conditions are not a danger to themselves or others, and according to Rosslyn Elliot, they are being “used” by people like the “Mother” author, who, now that I think on it, does tend to lump mental illness under a big “umbrella” (kind of like some people lump all disabilities into one group).
The other people with mental illness are on what Elliot refers to as Axis Two. These are people with full-blown psychosis, who are a danger to themselves and others even on psychotrophic or other drugs. It has been shown–as much as a flawed medical community can show it–that these people cannot feel pain, “think they are wonderful as they are” even if their choices are horrible, and other hallmarks. These are people who, according to Elliot, often–though not always–have not been raised with values, which only exacerbates the illness.
But whether or not a person with mental illness is on Axis One or Axis Two (we won’t argue about whether Axis Two can be treated, what the solutions are for that depth of mental illness, and so forth, because I don’t have the energy or the time right now), the fact remains that the family can either make the situation better and easier for themselves, or make it worse. And unfortunately, there are some families, like Liza Long, who wrote the “Mother” article, who choose to make things worse. Now, when I first read her article, I expressed deep sympathy for her and her son–which I still feel. But a responder to the article, a Hanna Rosin, has also actually read a blog written by this mother. Allegedly, this mother has not only done what she described in the article, but also had breakdowns on the blog, saying it is “crazy,” for example, for her 13-year-old, allegedly mentally ill son, to shoot rubber bands at his little brother, or for–get this–a five-year-old to cry because he dropped his lollipop. Now, I don’t know 100% if this is true. But if it is–that’s what’s crazy, Ms. Long. You yourself could probably use mental help. And to constantly threaten to institutionalize your son, and place him on a par with mass shooters because he called you a “stupid b—,” is probably not helping the situation. Do I feel sympathy for you and your situation? Yes, and I will be checking it out further. But I am simply saying, the families of people with mental illness have a ton to do with how their futures turn out. And they–as well as the rest of society–need to be vigilant about that.
As for people with disabilities like autism, who get tagged unfairly as “likely” to commit crimes like mass shootings?
That line of thinking is a little crazy, if I do say so myself.
May the children, teachers and staff who lost their lives last Friday rest in peace. God bless and keep you all.