I know I talked about the shooting yesterday and I thought I was done having feelings about it but then this morning it was all over our GMA episode. I was so saddened by the loss – it’s hard to be stoic when parents are on tv crying about their pain. I’m not complaining because I believe it’s important.
Yesterday, I read a statement put out by the National Autism Society and it stayed in the back of my mind. As a parent with a child with Autism, it makes me wonder. Who knows – maybe I have Autism. I definitely have some of the traits. Do I have it in me, does my son?
My answer is no – Autism is not the root of the problem. I don’t know if the shooter has Autism or not but now is a good time to open up the dialogue of what it’s like to live with Autism and the violence that might be included.
Let’s start with what is Autism. According to the National Institute on Mental Health: “Autism is a group of developmental brain disorders, collectively called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment, or disability, that children with ASD can have. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, but others are severely disabled.
Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) vary from one child to the next, but in general, they fall into three areas:
- Social impairment
- Communication difficulties
- Repetitive and stereotyped behaviors.
Children with ASD do not follow typical patterns when developing social and communication skills. Parents are usually the first to notice unusual behaviors in their child. Often, certain behaviors become more noticeable when comparing children of the same age.
In some cases, babies with ASD may seem different very early in their development. Even before their first birthday, some babies become overly focused on certain objects, rarely make eye contact, and fail to engage in typical back-and-forth play and babbling with their parents. Other children may develop normally until the second or even third year of life, but then start to lose interest in others and become silent, withdrawn, or indifferent to social signals. Loss or reversal of normal development is called regression and occurs in some children with ASD.”
Autism is sort of a catch all but no where in the description is violence mentioned. Does violence occur with Autism? Yes it does but violence occurs with parenting a toddler. It’s the word violence that’s the problem here. Children and adult with Autism have impairments, period. Sometimes those impairments cause intense frustration which lead to the person lashing out. It’s very much like having a temper tantrum. However, when the person having the tantrum is 6 foot and 200 pounds it looks a whole lot different.
My son has had horribly terrifying tantrums. He’s stronger than he thinks and it hurts when he hits. He says awful things and does damage to the house and our stuff. But he’s never been violent or aggressive outside of home. Why? Because the world is a hard and scary place. He works so hard to survive and bury all those feelings that when he gets home, they bubble up and he can’t control the onslaught of pain he’s carrying. He focuses on a safe environment.
It does scare us and it scares him but we know it’s not really personal. He’s in pain and can’t express it like neurotypical people can. I know that he melts down only at home because home is the only place that he can. If he had a meltdown at school it would be far more scary for him. He holds it in.
We work with teaching him to express himself. I try to teach him how to pray and talk to God because God is always there. I don’t care what religion he chooses, I want him to have someone (even if it’s imaginary) to always help carry his load. I don’t want this to be a religious debate – my son has a very hard time understanding religion. He doesn’t understand the concept of God but that’s a topic for another post.
The other thing I know about my son is that he’s not good with plans or following through. I have no fear of him plotting against the bully in his class (I don’t know if there is one) because that’s outside of his realm of ability. He can barely plot his way through his day. He carries everything he needs for school in his backpack and carries that everywhere because he can’t think through what he needs for each class.
I just don’t see this child plotting a shooting and he’s fairly typical of children with Autism. Their violence is always reactive or experimental. I almost said accidental but I think there’s some thought involved. I’ve seen my son do something that hurt someone but there was no malice there. I could imagine his brain wondering what would happen if.
Autism means a rather difficult time understanding how the person’s actions affect others. They know what it means to have pain but they don’t always understand that by doing something it causes pain in someone else. This especially is true when it comes to emotional pain. They have a really hard time with empathy. They aren’t sociopaths with no empathy. They just have a hard time understanding what the other person is feeling. Emotions and expressions are hard.
Often I have over-exaggerated my expressions or feelings with my son so he truly understands. If he hurts me and I want to cry, I cry because to withhold hurts him and me. He understands what it means if I cry. He’s sorry because he knows I hurt but if I just hold it in, he never understands that he caused me pain.
So, with this – how do I know that Autism isn’t the root of the school shooting? For some very basic reasons –
1. Autism affects the brains ability to plan. A school shooting requires getting a gun, going to the school, shooting and then having enough foresight to shot yourself. That’s too many steps for a plan that is really scary.
2. Just because Autism affects empathy, doesn’t mean that people with Autism have none. They have feelings, some far deeper than most people will understand. They understand pain and they understand protecting those who can’t protect themselves.
3. Violence in those with Autism is reactive and geared towards those who either “started it” or with those who are safe.
4. No diagnosis stays the same from person to person. So just because one person with Autism commits a violent crime, that doesn’t mean they all will. Autism is not a lifestyle, it’s a barrier put up that challenges the person who has it and those around that person.
5, and most important. Autism is not evil. It’s not a death sentence. It’s not even a life without parole sort of sentence. It’s a different brain path. It’s something that can be beautiful and amazing. It can lead to wonderful adults, brilliant thinkers and world changes. But it takes education and acceptance. It takes love and understanding.