The Connecticut School Shooting, Autism, and a Breaking Glass Heart

When I first heard on Friday about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I had no words in me at all. It was like someone had just punched me in the gut and I could only think about the senselessness of this violent act and how the victims of the families must feel. After I stopped crying, one of my first acts was to write this poem, “Candles“. If I can’t speak, I might write. Having few to no candles in the house but a few words bouncing around inside me, this was the best I could do to remember the victims.

Over the weekend, my fiance and I happened upon a video by a prominent YouTube personality about the shooting. He expressed, of course, his grief and anger but then later in the video suggested something I would call “lunatic profiling”. I found myself saying, “No, no, no! That is not the way to solve the problem!” I also felt that if such a suggestion were taken seriously, it could lead to people deemed “odd” or “eccentric” or even autistic people being targeted. And I said so in a video I posted on YouTube in which I read the poem.

This morning, I check the news and find speculation that the shooter had Asperger Syndrome. Oh boy. Where do I even begin?

First, I must say that while the effort has been a nearly Herculean battle within myself, I am trying to think more positively these days. However, it is very hard not to be concerned when I see the words “autism” and “mass murder” in the same headlines. So far, the worst I’ve encountered when self-disclosing about my Asperger’s has been gentle and curious ignorance and mostly, it has taken the form of comments such as “you look so normal” and “you seem to be handling it well”. I think many of us would prefer acceptance and understanding or even gentle and curious ignorance to fear-based, dangerous associations between autism and evil or autism and violence. This is why I couldn’t ignore the headlines.

I recognize that in the grief and shock that many people feel after such an event, they want answers. But they need to be the right answers. And any solutions being considered to rectify the problem of mass shootings and gun violence need to be tempered not only with rational and clear thinking, but with the preservation of civil liberties and the avoidance of unfairly stigmatizing an entire group of people based on myths, misunderstanding, and prejudice. I am deeply concerned that without the voice of autistics and with fear-mongering and lack of understanding of autistic people, assumptions will be made that we are a bunch of violent, unfeeling psychopaths when nothing could be further from the truth.

Many autistics are already speaking out about these issues. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg has already aided to dispel the myth that we lack empathy with her website, AutismandEmpathy.com. Other autistics have written very articulate and well-thought posts to contribute to the discussion of where (if at all) autism fits in with this shooting and John Elder Robison has contributed his own thoughts as well. I won’t add much more to the discussion except for a few things:

  1. I must stress, as others already have done, that our particular condition involves difficulties with communication, sensory processing, and other neurological issues — not empathy or feeling. I know I have difficulty sometimes identifying my emotions and expressing them, and sometimes I do feel overwhelmed. I find myself angry, sometimes, like the next person and managing these emotions can be a challenge. However, this is not automatically a recipe for violence. Also, some of the hallmarks of Asperger’s, such as difficulty with social connections or the so-called “flat affect” are externals and to judge our capacity for feeling or empathy by these is a serious mistake. For example: though I am female, my lack of tears has more to do with my preference or even comfort level with expressing emotions in public. I prefer to cry behind closed doors, in front of my fiance, because I feel so vulnerable if it happens in front of strangers.
  2. Most of us have better things to do than to kill other living creatures, human or otherwise, and would never dream of inflicting this kind of harm. As for me, I’m too busy writing, or trying to do my best work at my day job, or trying to create, or have fun, or manage communication, or stop being apprehensive in social situations, or maintain a healthy relationship with my fiance, or ponder the nature of God, or…or…well, I think you get the point.
  3. Many of us in the autism community are saddened and grieve for the lives lost in tragedies such as this. My own glass heart is breaking for those who died and for their families. I wish for such a day when, as the Old Testament writer and prophet Isaiah put it, the “wolf…shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together” or as he writes earlier in the same book, when the human race “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

It is my sincere hope that everyone affected by the shooting find comfort, and that we pursue solutions to the problem with clear and rational thinking. I also pray that there is greater understanding of autism spectrum conditions and that opportunities for education arise rather than assumptions, prejudice, and fear of autistic people.

-Nicole

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8 thoughts on “The Connecticut School Shooting, Autism, and a Breaking Glass Heart

  1. It is so important to hear your voice.
    In the weeks to come we’ll learn more about the shooter, but a diagnosis of Aspergers seems wrong or certainly incomplete.
    Yes, we must understand much more about the autism spectrum.
    What do you think of Simon Baron-Cohen’s work which distinguishes cognitive and affective empathy? You can find a recent TEDX talk here http://currencyofempathy.wordpress.com/

    • Hello JackieAcho: I will need to take a further look at Dr. Baron-Cohen’s work. I am somewhat familiar with it, and based on what I do know, I’m not sure I agree with what he says about empathy and autism as a whole. I’ll have to take a look at his recent TEDX talk and judge for myself.

      I have written about empathy and autism on this blog before. I invite you to take a look at The Empathy Question, Revisited and A Few Words About Empathy and let me know what you think.

      Thank you for visiting and commenting, and I look forward to your thoughts.

      -Nicole

      • Nicole – all of these posts are very thought provoking, as is your poetry and art. The concept of neurodiversity is important, and the danger of oversimplifying and wrongly profiling is real. There is so much to understand here. I appreciate your perspectives very much. Jackie

  2. VERY well said. Before reading this, before hearing this autism connection to it, I was already getting angry about how the papers are saying ‘madman massacres school’ or ‘lunatic’. Why? Because it seemed very obvious to me that kid was suffering himself and probably knew it was wrong when he did it, but had too many problems to stop. To kill a parent plus children makes me think, what went wrong in HIS childhood to make him resent it so much in others?

    And I thought, hating the world is often a natural part of adolescence. What happens when no one supports you through it, or ever has? What if you have been emotionally abandoned? No, it doesn’t at all justify it. But I think it’s turning a blind eye simply to label him crazy, when in fact few people are truly crazy. Manson and Hitler were crazy. These teenage gunmen are suffering from who knows what and where is the psychological support to help them before it gets to such a violent stage? He could not have been a model balanced child and one day just snapped. There had to have been a history, and all those years no one stepped in to help him and prevent such a future, clearly. And I’m really not surprised when insurance barely covers therapy and drugs are given out like candy despite the side effects including violence and suicidal thinking. I was put on such drugs myself once. It made me crazy for a while. I wanted to die. If his autism had ANYTHING to do with it, I’d put money on it being related to medication. The Columbine boys were on Zoloft. I KNOW what that stuff can do to you. It’s under a lawsuit. They just make it again under a different name. Check the ingredients for all these SSRIs, they are the same, yet doctors say oh one isn’t working? Try this. It’s the SAME. The FDA is happily MAKING people crazy, but then blaming the condition. And if you say this, people act like you are a conspiracy theorist. No, I’m not. I’m autistic and I have lived through this, and I know.

    • Hello Vrinda: I’ve been through the mill on antidepressants myself. Both times, I felt kinda fuzzy, and the first time I felt like a zombie. The second time, I was willing to try a low-dose one to help my anxiety. It worked for a while, but then the “fuzzy” feeling came and I got sick of it. And if I’ve had minor problems with them, what kind of major problems might an autistic have if he/she is on one that causes suicidal thoughts and violent behavior? And now I am remembering reading that some antidepressants are more likely to cause these side effects in teenagers.

      Now, to speak to what you said about emotional pain, abandonment, hating the world, etc. I know how that feels. I went through abuse as a teenager/young adult. I had occasional meltdowns, caused by the abuse, but after a while I learned to stuff everything in and just wear a stone look on my face. Not healthy. And the ironic thing is, the aunt who raised me and who was also the primary abuser wanted to call me a mental case and lock me up…yet she was CAUSING the reactions. Later I lashed out at friends and family — and I am still fighting not to do this — and I know I have hurt people. So I’m guessing maybe you’re right — something was going on behind the scenes that has yet to be uncovered by the media or by any fact finders. The fact that his parents had gone through/were going through a divorce (I’m not sure which it is) tells me there might have been some issues already, but again, we don’t know. I agree that none of this excuses what he did but it would be irresponsible just to label him as crazy and move on. Reminds me of that “lunatic profiling” that I cautioned about in my video.

      Now it will remain to be seen if this will turn into a responsible public conversation on how to solve the problem. Let’s not blame it on guns, or autism, or video games, or Marilyn Manson, or Dungeons and Dragons, what have you. Let’s examine the facts responsibly and find the actual causes of the problems, not just slap a band-aid over it with drugs or locking the “odd” or “eccentric” up as a quick fix.

      -Nicole

    • This is exactly what I’ve been feeling/thinking, but I keep getting responses or lack of responses that make me feel like i’m a psychopath or missing the big picture. thank you for voicing your opinion :3

  3. Vrinda – my friend just today said the same thing to me today about (legal) drugs and the role they may have played in Newtown. His son has suffered from ______ (? they don’t really know), and so was put on various cocktails of drugs a year ago. They almost lost him. He was not the same boy.

    Pharmacos are too often driven by the wrong incentives (purely profit) and blinded to the harm their products cause, including lost of neurodiversity. I was educated as a chemist and work on innovation in the business world, so I don’t say this lightly or without experience in research.

    They need to be held accountable in these cases too. When will that come out in the press, I wonder….
    Jackie

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