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In Grief, Stereotyping Mental Illness

In Grief, Stereotyping Mental Illness

Every American reels with shock and horror in the aftermath of school shootings like the one this past Friday in Connecticut.

But for the millions of Americans with neurological or psychiatric disabilities, another emotion is inevitable. For us, the news carries a special kind of terror alongside the mourning: how soon until we are blamed?

Shortly after rumors began to circulate that the shooter, Adam Lanza, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a talking head psychologist opined on CNN that autistic people have “something missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy.”

In the days following, one popular essay entitled, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” went massively viral, giving a Boise, Idaho mom a platform to equate her 13-year old child exhibiting psychiatric problems with nearly all the recent mass murderers in American life. Closer to home, as soon as the news broke I and my colleagues at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network found ourselves immersed with a flood of frightening and sad messages from Autistic adults and children fearing the inevitable reaction that would emerge against us in our schools, workplaces and communities.

Though both autism and mental illness are more common than many realize, most Americans will not ever know the unique brand of fear and despair of being branded as a potential dangerous and unfeeling monster. Perhaps that is the point of such exercises. The rush to attribute culpability to a minority after an act of mass murder is a rush to exonerate the general public – how can we specify the ways in which the killer was not “one of us”? When the shooter comes from a racial or religious group, this is a relatively simple if despicable enterprise. When they are just another white male, the only remaining option is to locate a disability diagnosis. Such a convenient way for normal society to distance itself from the inconceivable!

While opining on the still unconfirmed diagnosis of the shooter may make for good television, it is hardly a productive way of informing the public. Moreover, there is something horrifically exploitative about announcing to the world that one’s child is a future mass murderer by virtue of psychiatric problems experienced in his preteen years. The son of the writer who penned “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” (published with his picture and his mother’s real name) returned to school this week surrounded by people who will inevitable look at him as a ticking time-bomb. Thanks to his mother’s choice to use him as a prop in her writing career, he will forever be associated with the worst mass killers this country has ever known. It is hard to imagine what a 13-year old boy could have possibly done to deserve something like that.

Not only does the focus on mental illness and disability distract from more productive lines of discussion on how to deal with gun violence, it also plunges into a horrific swarm of stigma and stereotype those of us who deal with the consequences of pundits’ willingness to demonize people with neurological and psychiatric disabilities.

For autistic Americans and for people with psychiatric disabilities, each massacre brings both feelings of mourning for the victims and real fear that the media will attempt to link us with the shooter. While it is understandable that people will seek to explain the unexplainable after an incident of mass murder, stereotyping an entire community based on the horrifying actions of one person should never be acceptable. Some basic facts on the non-existent link between autism, disability and violent crime are long past due.

Autism is not in any way associated with violent crime. In fact, research has shown that people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism and psychiatric disability, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.

While a small number of mental illness diagnoses have a statistical correlation with violent crime, studies have found that even in these conditions the relationship largely disappears after controlling for substance abuse. Furthermore, although popular myth has long linked autism with lack of empathy, a growing body of science has confirmed what Autistic people have been saying all along: those of us on the autism spectrum possess empathy on par with the neurologically typical population, even if we sometimes struggle to communicate it.

Disabled people – particularly those of us who have brain-based diagnoses – face tremendous stigma that has driven widespread discrimination in housing, education and the workplace. The last thing we as a society should be doing is adding to the prejudice we already face through perpetuating false and damaging stereotypes about those of us on the autism spectrum and others in the disability community.

This week, schoolchildren are returning to the classroom after having been exposed to a weekend’s worth of 24/7 coverage on the shooting. Among those students will be a great many who share the same disabilities being blamed so callously for the horror our nation has just experienced. What message will the culture have sent to their classmates and teachers? Are we encouraging children and educators to view their classmates with disabilities as valued, included members of the school community? Or will our newsmedia continue to suggest that we should be viewed with suspicion and fear? As an autistic person, I desperately hope for the former – but experience has all too often taught me to expect the latter.

After 9/11, our nation’s leaders took great pains to distinguish between the individuals who committed the attack on our nation and the broader Muslim religion. We recognized then that as we cope with national trauma, it is all too easy to fall prey to bigotry and prejudice in the rush to find some group to blame. Today, we need a similar commitment. As our country has so many times in the past, let us do more than look for the easy answers. It is time for us to come together to both mourn those killed in an act of heinous murder and to defend all parts of our country from the scourge of stigma and prejudice.

Ari Ne’eman is President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. In 2009, he was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on Disability. He is the first openly Autistic presidential appointee in American history. In 2010, he was one of New York Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36.

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