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Autism Experts Speak Out on Media’s Rush for Information

GAHHHHHH are we seriously even having this conversation?

In a desperate attempt to satiate the public’s appetite for any and all information immediately, media outlets have been interviewing pretty much anyone who ever knew Adam Lanza or any member of his family. I seriously will not be surprised to see a headline soon that says something like “Lanza Family Dog: ‘I Always Knew He Smelled Funny.’”

The end result of this, besides getting a crapton of information wrong last Friday, is that a lot is being made of the possibility that Adam Lanza, who killed 27 people and then himself, may have had autism. In the rush for any information (and ratings and page clicks), a huge disservice has been done to people with autism, by almost every single major media news outlet.

“Kyle Kromberg, another former classmate, said that Lanza could not keep eye contact with anyone,” reported ABC News. (Note: Both ABC and Babble are owned by Disney.)

“He hated looking at your eyes for more than a couple seconds,” former classmate Kyle Kromberg told ABC News. “He’d always look down at his papers or whatever he was doing.”

This would break my heart except it was already broken by what happened in Newtown. Two of my four children have Asperger Syndrome. Eye contact is difficult for them. Making eye contact actually makes it harder for them to concentrate on what you’re saying. And yet, the most violent thing they’re likely to do is build a really ass-kicking LEGO Death Star.

I should clarify that none of these news pieces outright say “Adam Lanza was autistic and therefore he shot up a classroom.” The problem is the lack of perspective, the way the details are thrown together with equal weight. As a mother of two kids with Asperger, I can’t help but cringe when I see a quote about eye contact an inch away from the description of what Adam Lanza did on December 14.

Here’s a screen grab from the above ABC News piece:

I know we want information. I know we want to find a reason, because otherwise daily life is just too horrifying. Sending our kids to school becomes simply terrifying. But in this piece, the details that seem to be about Asperger Syndrome–like Lanza’s inability to hold eye contact — are gone over and over without being put into any perspective. The only context seems to be: this kid couldn’t make eye contact and then he shot up a classroom.

Even the quote from the babysitter is so unexplained. WHY should he never leave Adam alone? Because he would wander? Because he would take apart the dishwasher? Because he’d get into his mother’s gun collection? I have a lot of readers and friends whose autistic kids need constant supervision because they will simply wander the hell off.

A separate ABC piece notes, “Long before Lanza’s spree residents of Newtown had noticed that tall, pale boy was different, and believed he had some kind of unspecified personality disorder.”

These are the moments for editing. The moments to take an extra few minutes to find an expert. Don’t tell me there wasn’t time: reporters found the time to dig up classmates from five years ago. Throwing unconfirmed, vague “diagnoses” out there, such as “”some kind of unspecified personality disorder” doesn’t actually help us understand the Newtown tragedy at all.

ABC News was by no means alone, and I don’t mean to pick on them specifically. Far worse, for example, was FOX News’ coverage of ABC News (because reporting on reporting is a thing):

The New York Times reported on Friday that “Several [former classmates] said in separate interviews that it was their understanding that he had a developmental disorder. They said they had been told that the disorder was Asperger’s syndrome, which is considered a high functioning form of autism.” Despite giving us many details on the ways in which Adam Lanza seems to have been socially awkward, that Times article doesn’t offer any perspective from experts.

CBS and 60 Minutes, The Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News also reported on Lanza’s (unconfirmed) diagnosis or his supposed symptoms.

After days of hearing about this, we’re finally starting to see some actual autism experts being interviewed. And (go figure) all of them are saying the same thing: people with autism are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.

In fact, in yesterday’s New York Times, leading autism researcher and clinician Dr. Catherine Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at NewYork-Presbyterian hospital, explains that the tragic Newtown scenario is actually less likely for a person with autism:

“Aggression in autism spectrum disorders is almost never directed to people outside the family or immediate caregivers, is almost never planned, and almost never involves weapons. Each of these aspects of the current case is more common in other populations than autism.”

More statements from experts, and from adults with Asperger Syndrome:

John Elder Robison in Psychology Today: “Studies show autistic people are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. If you’re looking for a group of people to fear, we’re not it.”

Emily Willingham, Ph.D. on Huffington Post:  explains the difference between cognitive empathy, (the social ability to recognize the emotion someone is feeling by following social cues) and emotional empathy (recognition of the emotion, whether the message comes through verbally or nonverbally, intuitively or not). “Research shows that people with Asperger’s are not that great at cognitive empathy,” writes Dr. Willingham, “but that their emotional empathy does not differ from people without Asperger’s.”

Ari Ne’Eman of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network: “Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.”

Amy S.F. Lutz, president of the Ending Aggression and Self-Injury in the Developmentally Disabled (EASI) Foundation on Slate: “Every time we conflate his developmental disorder with whatever psychiatric or personality disorders he may also have suffered from, we harm the entire autism community.”

Bob and Suzanne Wright, Co-Founders, Autism Speaks: “People want immediate or simple answers when an unimaginable tragedy like this occurs. Autism did not cause this horror. The profound tragedy of these senseless murders will only be compounded if it results in unwarranted discrimination against people with autism.”

The media equating Asperger Syndrome with violence makes the Newtown tragedy even more painful for my family than it already is. Far more importantly, autism wasn’t even germane to the discussion. We should be discussing the availability of mental health in this country. We should be discussing gun laws. We should be discussing the Second Amendment.

We shouldn’t even have had to discuss autism.

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto. Screencap: FOX)

Recent posts: 
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