It is often the rule that in the hours immediately following a tragedy such as the shooting in Newtown, CT that the media report erroneous information as the scramble to delineate the tragedy’s parameters intensifies. Sometimes that erroneous information can cause grave harm to innocent people, and such is the potential with early reports that the shooter, Adam Lanza, may have had autism or Asperger’s disorder.
Whether or not the shooter resided somewhere on the autism spectrum, autism is in no way causal in this situation. How people are treated by other people is what leads to the isolation, alienation, and despair that drives people to these all-too-frequent acts of unimaginable violence.
In no other school shooting or mass murder has the autism spectrum been invoked as a causal factor. That’s noteworthy.
As the father of a son on the autism spectrum, I speak from painful and joyful experience. Joseph is thirteen years old and doing marvelously, as I’ve written about here on the blog. In February Joseph will be awarded the rank of Star in the Boy Scouts (having achieved the ranks of Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class). This places him two ranks from Eagle Scout, which he’s on track to achieve by age 16.
Joseph also dances Irish Step, Street Tap, and Jazz. I’m also Joseph’s baseball coach, and biggest cheerleader in his competitive bowling, for which he received the bronze medal for boys 11 and under in New York State. Joseph is also an altar boy in our parish. He’s very involved in good and wholesome activities and is always the first to volunteer for service projects.
That last point is key and needs to be discussed.
It is true that people on the autism spectrum have difficulty in empathy for others. But empathic behavior is not impossible and can be taught through social skills activities and training. Also, involvement in social groups and functions is essential, and not optional. Even if empathy is slow to come online, the idiosyncratic focus that many with Asperger’s have on rules can be used to great effect in ordering the social interactions of these children. Respect for the property and rights of others can be taught as rules to be followed as we wait for empathic sensibilities to develop.
We have a large bubble of teens on the spectrum, and an even larger bubble of children on the spectrum behind them who are going to need gainful employment, as any other citizen. It is vital, VITAL, that employers not walk away from this episode with some vague and erroneous understanding that people on the autism spectrum represent a danger to the public.
There is a sweetness to most of these children, and with proper placement into wholesome (often faith-based) social groups where there is genuinely patient forbearance, they will grow as teens with a sense of rootedness and belonging. In this, their needs are no different than those of their neurotypical peers.
The evil visited on my friends’ community yesterday was in no way rooted in the autism spectrum. It was rooted in the coarsening to life that has gripped this nation for decades. That’s a discussion for another day, and it will not happen here on this blog while there are so many yet to be buried.
For now, it’s enough to say that our children on the autism spectrum call forth the best in us and are a blessing in our lives. They need to be embraced, now more than ever, lest they become additional victims of one man’s evil.
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