Don't Blame Tragedy on Autism
Op Ed by Tracey Sheriff, CEO of the Autism Society of North Carolina
December 24, 2012
As our nation grieves over the horrific killings in Connecticut and tries to fathom what could have led Adam Lanza to take the lives of his mother, 20 first-graders and six school employees before ending his own life, we should not look for easy answers or rush to assign blame.
Media coverage of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has drawn disturbing, unjustified and needless connections between autism and the shootings, with some media outlets reporting that the shooter had a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome.
Autism was not the cause of the tragedy, yet the media have helped perpetuate misunderstanding and unnecessary public fear, stigma and concern about this disability, which affects one in 88 Americans. Autism affects 60,000 families in North Carolina.
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, refers to a group of developmental disabilities that affect a person’s ability to understand what he or she sees, hears and otherwise senses. Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a form of mental illness. It is a neurobiological disorder that affects communication and is characterized by difficulties in understanding social relationships and interactions.
Autism, with Asperger’s Syndrome representing the milder end of the disorder’s spectrum, affects the brain’s ability to process information and to communicate thoughts and feelings. Some individuals on the autism spectrum may demonstrate behavioral issues. That generally is in response to an isolated situation and inability to communicate their needs and is nothing like what was witnessed in Newtown.
In most cases, people with autism are caring and honest, and have the same dreams and ambitions as the rest of us. And representing one in 70 North Carolinians, people with autism are an integral part of our lives, our communities and our state.
People with Asperger’s Syndrome have less severe symptoms than others with autism and do not have intellectual or language delays. Children with Asperger’s, who may be only mildly affected and often have good language and cognitive skills, may be perceived at times as socially awkward and may not understand conventional social rules.
What a diagnosis of autism does not mean is that an individual is prone to the type of premeditated violence that erupted in Newtown. No studies support that assertion. In fact, individuals with autism and disabilities are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.
People with autism, and their families, face many challenges, and for more than 40 years, the Autism Society of North Carolina has provided support and promoted opportunities for them to improve their lives.
As we work toward making the world a better place for all of our children, let us all consider the need for support services for individuals with autism and other disabilities, for an end to stigmas, and for deeper understanding of human complexities.
We also need to understand that, with the services and support they need, people with autism can enjoy the same opportunities and quality of life the rest of us too often take for granted.