Editor's Note: In response to last week's tragic shooting and a recent article linking autism and violence, Aaron Feinstein shares a conversation about empathy that he shared with young people who have autism following the Sandy Hook shootings last year.
There is a myth that autism is defined by a lack of empathy, but this is not the autism I know. People with autism are some of the most empathetic people that I have ever met.
Autistic people and their families are once again being asked to make sense of the terribly tragic shooting at Isla Vista in Santa Barbara with the rest of the country. The difference in the autism community is that our grieving is in the shadow of a recent Washington Post article linking mass shootings to autism. Although the article is based on poor anecdotal evidence and should easily be dismissed, it still further stigmatizes people with autism as somehow having an inherent connection to these horrific mass shootings.
Because of the shooting, and that article, I felt compelled to share a discussion I facilitated with a group of teenagers on the autism spectrum that emerged after the Sandy Hook massacre in one of our Miracle Project classes in Brooklyn.
Our Brooklyn-based Miracle Project group is composed mostly of children and teens on the autism spectrum, and our goal then was to improvise and create an original play based on our stories, hopes and dreams.
Our play was about a support group full of folks who are helping each other because they’ve been treated unfairly for having big dreams. Our working title was “Dreamers Anonymous.” Of course, people with autism dream about their life aspirations just like anyone else. In our Saturday group at Space No. 1 in Brooklyn, we all perform our dreams fearlessly.
For my own character in our play, I was playing the moderator of the group: a 48-year-old rocker named Clive who desperately wants to put his rock band back together after a nasty break up. We also had Madelyn, a teenager whose character dreams of “total freedom,” and Christy, a young adult whose character wanted to create a recording studio for deaf and blind performers.
Still shaken from the day before, I didn’t bring up the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings. The discussion started with one of the young adults in our group with Aspergers named Sam. He was trying to describe the heroic nature of the soldier he is performing in our play.
“I’m incredibly brave. You know, I would’ve protected those little kids who got shot by installing a massive alarm system at their school.”
His comment sparked a group discussion. We were all upset, confused and disturbed by the massacre. Kim was the first to speak up:
“Did you hear that the guy murdered kindergarten kids? That’s just crazy.”
Kim sometimes repeats things she overhears, but this was clearly her own reflection, in her own voice.
Madelyn, who has an awesome punk-inspired fashion sense, replied, “It’s so messed up. They were just little kids.”
Sam kept going on about his alarm system idea. His alarm system was built of wizardly clocks synced perfectly with enormous loudspeakers that could send intuition-based alarm signals to futuristic law enforcement officers. Then he said something I was not expecting to hear:
“You know, the guy who killed the kids has autism. He has a brain disorder like me.”
Everyone, including the instructors in our group, stopped talking and squirmed uncomfortably. Did the killer have autism? Do we have a brain disorder? What did all of this violence mean for our little community?
I looked around at the group and said, “Well, some people could say any of us here have brain disorders. That doesn’t mean we do. That doesn’t mean any of us are going to go shoot up a kindergarten. Have any of you ever been told that you have a brain disorder?”
Everyone’s hand shot up; we all identified with the idea of someone thinking that we had a disorder.
“Autism doesn’t make you kill people,” Madelyn said.
There was mutual agreement among our group. Autism doesn’t make people kill. Having autism doesn't make you a bad person. In fact, it often means that you're more sensitive to things that others miss, which can be a very good thing.
There was a moment of silence and then Kim said: “All those little kids and families’ dreams: Gone.”
I agreed with her: “All those dreams, gone forever.”
I looked over at Sam. I knew he was still dreaming of his perfect alarm system. This alarm system would be so powerful that it would beam warning signals via satellite to first responders in nanoseconds. It would prevent any other crimes against innocent children from ever happening again.
“If I designed the perfect alarm system, everyone would’ve been safe!” Sam said with enthusiasm.
Aaron Feinstein is The Director of The Miracle Project New York and Actionplay and an educator and advocate for people of all abilities. Aaron has created sensory friendly programming for children with autism and developmental disabilities at The Brooklyn Museum and The Brooklyn Children's Museum, and has directed the Miracle Project's inclusive theatre and music programming at the 92nd Street Y, Rebecca School and Educational Alliance among many other leading schools, arts and performance institutions. Reach him on twitter @thefeinstein