In the aftermath of a tragic incident like the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, we’re often left with questions. A natural response is to seek out answers, to try to make sense of something truly horrific – and to place blame.
“Cruz had been diagnosed with autism,” read a Feb. 17 article in the Chicago Tribune, “a neurological disorder that often leads to social awkwardness and isolation.”
It’s not a new take – in fact, autism is frequently associated with violence in these situations. Since many people don’t understand what it means to be autistic, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. And it feels better when you can put a label on it. Because it wasn’t random, right? He was just autistic.
But buying into the idea that autistic equals violent is not only incredibly dangerous, it puts an already vulnerable population even more at risk.
“An overwhelming number of research studies have found that people with mental health disabilities are no more likely to commit violent acts than anyone else,” ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network) stated in a release issued Feb. 16. “In fact, we are much more likely to be the victims of a violent crime than the perpetrators.”
In addition to the “awkwardness and isolation” that is generally attributed to both autistic people and disturbed teenagers with guns, there is also a pervasive misconception that those on the spectrum are unable to feel empathy – lending credence to the idea autistic people must be violent individuals. According to a 2012 Psychology Today article, empathy is “the ability that makes us truly human.”
So, if autistic people lack empathy, what does that make them? Aliens? Monsters?
In reality, many autistic people have particularly strong empathetic responses. While the autistic community has been arguing this for years, researchers are finally suggesting it’s not necessarily empathy itself that is compromised in an autistic brain – instead, autistic individuals might express this empathy in ways that won’t always make sense to someone neurotypical.
Still, the association continues. It’s important to remember, when you see coverage that tries to explain away a tragedy by implying it was a result of autism – while autistic people are infinitely more likely to be victims – there are always those, as in any population, who will make poor choices with terrible consequences.
To help us move past this harmful preconceived generalization, Dr. Karoly Mirnics, director of the Munroe-Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center offers some advice – suggesting we make a greater effort as a society to include, not stigmatize, autistic people.
“By learning, understanding and accepting them, it opens a whole new world for us,” she said. “You will see that they are different than you, but they are not better or worse.”