Newtown shootings: Media coverage creates dangerous stereotypes of people with autism

Like every other parent, I was heartbroken and very nearly physically ill as I watched the news unfold in Newtown, Conn., on Friday. I spent most of the afternoon fighting the urge to flee my desk and get to my two children — who were at school, safely and happily ignorant of the news — to hug them and smell the tops of their heads.

Then I saw a news report from ABC saying that Ryan Lanza had told authorities that his brother Adam, the alleged gunman in Friday’s massacre, had an autism spectrum disorder.

No. Oh, no no no no no.

My brain was screaming: Please, please, please don’t make this about autism. People with autism are no more likely to commit this kind of senseless act of violence than anyone else, and mentioning autism in this context can create inaccurate associations in people’s minds.

As the parent of a child with developmental disabilities, I hoped it was a fleeting rumor and that it would disappear, but it has since been reported by most media outlets, including The Post. Many journalists have pointed out in recent days that there is no link between autism and violent behavior, but autism advocates worry that it might not matter at this point.

“My great fear as the mom of an adolescent with autism is that —  [while] the eyes of the world are on this unspeakable heartbreaking tragedy — with the great need to know why it happened,  misinformation could easily trigger increased stigma and confusion about this already misunderstood disorder,” actress and autism advocate Holly Robinson Peete wrote in an e-mail.

“My sincere hope is that as we mourn the victims of this nightmare we will avoid inappropriate and unfounded links between autism and violence,” wrote Peete.

Lanza may have had autism.Those reports remain unconfirmed. But it doesn’t matter. Not only is there no evidence linking autism to planned acts of violence, studies have actually shown that people with autism are more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers. They are victims far more often than perpetrators, said Shannon Des Roches Rosa, author of the blog Squidalicious and a senior editor at Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.

“It’s really hard to unscare people,” Rosa said. “That’s why this concerns me. If the first-line stories are that he might be autistic and people immediately associate autism or Asperger’s with this, it takes so much work to undo that. It’s really distressing.”

By referencing autism once again in relation to a mass killing (Joe Scarborough speculated after the Aurora movie theater shooting in July that James Holmes was “somewhere on the autism spectrum”), autism advocates say there is a risk of perpetuating a stereotype that is both dangerous and harmful.

“The way the media said it, it was like ‘that explains it, that’s why,’” said Paula Durbin-Westby, a mother in Louisa, Va., who has autism and blogged about this issue over the weekend . “I was going to write something about feeling grief over the whole shooting. I didn’t want to talk about the Asperger’s thing because I wanted to respect and honor the victims.

“I don’t think anything could be worse for the families in that community, and I didn’t want to focus attention away from that. But then I thought about the autistic adults and children I know. . . so many nice, gentle, loving people, and how they’re going to get labeled like this, and I just had to say something.”

Ellen Seidman, who writes the blog Love that Max about her 10-year-old son who has cerebral palsy, also wrote over the weekend about the dangerous stereotypes this kind of coverage can create.

“People in general have a really hard time understanding people and kids with special needs,” Seidman said. “As a mother I can say for sure there is a huge social divide between my son and neurotypical kids. Demonizing autism and special needs this way creates a further divide.”

Seidman, Durbin-Westby, Peete and Rosa all said the focus is, and should be, on the victims of this crime and their families. Their losses are unimaginable. The four women expressed mixed feelings about discussing autism in the aftermath of the tragedy. But they also felt that, given the coverage, they had no choice.

“We should be talking about these families, about better mental health care, about gun control, instead of having to do this social triage when that’s not the main concern,” Rosa said. “I can’t believe in the midst of this horrible tragedy, this is what we have to do.”

Related content:

Autism experts say no evidence of link between Asperger’s and violence like in Connecticut

Study shows almost half of children with autism are victimized by bullies

Editor Jennifer Byde Myers Talks about “Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism”

Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.
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