I’m not officially back. Maybe I am. I don’t know. All I know is that this needed to be said.
There’s news circulating today about a study linking autism and mass murder. You can read it here.
It’s not a terrible study. It might surprise you to hear the mother of a 5 year old on the autism spectrum say that, but I actually don’t have a ton of problems with it. Why? Largely because it spells out its limitations very clearly. The authors reviewed research (and I use this term loosely – you’ll see what I mean if you read it) in order to determine whether mass murderers since 1985 were formally diagnosed as autistic or likely should have been in order to reach their conclusions. They found that 67 of 239 killers researched fit their criteria.
The authors are careful to note this doesn’t mean people on the autism spectrum are more likely to kill. There are a lot of other things they don’t note, unfortunately. Like the fact that our understanding of what the autism spectrum is today has been so greatly expanded in just the past few years that placement on the spectrum is far more common than it has ever been. Like the fact that there is such a massive scope of experience on that spectrum that the average person’s understanding of what autism looks like is (comically? tragically?) flawed. Like the fact that there are extensive concerns about over-diagnosis of autism in the past decade.
Still, they do a decent job of pointing out that their study doesn’t really conclude a damn thing. The authors are correct when they say that, “the gaps in our understanding about the actual mechanisms of development toward [mass murder events] are enormous.” That’s why I don’t have a problem sharing the study, particularly with caveat. Reading the study itself – with proper context – renders it to its proper form: little more than fun with numbers. Not great numbers, but still.
The problem is, the gaps in our understanding of autism – medically and socially speaking – are perhaps even larger. That’s why I have a MAJOR issue with articles like the one published by the Washington Post entitled, “Study: ‘Significant’ statistical link between mass murder and autism, brain injury.”
The article was written by a foreign affairs correspondent who looks fresh out of high school. Why a foreign affairs correspondent is qualified to read, summarize, and explain this study, I have no idea, but he tried. I won’t link to it here (don’t want to give the drivel any clicks), but woooo, buddy. Let’s just say it took a hot minute for the Mama Bear Rage to subside. And it needed to – because this is too important to get dismissed as a rant.
The Post piece started off with the oft trotted example of autism and violence, citing Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza’s story. From there, he teased the content of the study by highlighting how offended groups like The Autism Society were. When he finally got to the meat of it, he made sure to sensitively point out the study’s biggest limitation: variations in the way nations report serial killers.
Not a single mention of just how fucking big the autism spectrum is. Not a whisper about the uptick in prevalence. Not even a hint as to how the researchers determined who was on the spectrum in their murdering pool. Nope. The author’s message was: here are some numbers from some fancy researchers that are making other people angry.
If I were still a starry-eyed freshman in college, I might hope that people would see through that nonsense as click-baiting keyboard diarrhea. I’m not, though. I’ve watched government officials decry globally vetted science as political conspiracy, make up magical ideas about uterine superpowers, and convince the population that corn ethanol is good for them. My faith in social critical thought capacity (or, at least, a willingness to use it) is pretty low these days, and this is no exception. Odds are, that article served to further the stigma surrounding the autism spectrum for too many, firmly categorizing the diagnosis as “bad”, regardless of what the study actually found.
BAD. THAT. THAT RIGHT THERE. THAT’S THE PROBLEM.
I’d describe how angry that makes me…
…but this post is going to have enough profanity in it, I feel. I’ll say this instead:
My daughter is not bad. She is not broken, flawed, damaged, deficient, defective, or anything to that effect. She is different.
She learns, processes information, understands ideas, and communicates differently than other kids her age, but to the same end. She is empathetic to an extreme; it manifests as compassion. She is full of energy and best engaged by storytelling; it’s made her an entertainer and leader among her friends at school during playtime. Her speech is delayed somewhat; many of her peers are neither on the autism spectrum nor diagnosed with any other developmental disorder, and are in speech therapy, as well. Her coordination could be better, but I’m still not convinced that’s a function of her placement on the spectrum; I’m the queen of the klutzes on my best days.
She’s in kindergarten. Her classmates don’t care that she’s different today, because – let’s be real – we’re all a little weird at that age. Eventually, though, differences prompt questions and explanations. As parents, we don’t always have the answers. We try our best, but we often find ourselves drawing from imperfect pools of information … like that Washington Post article.
I know the day will come when some punk on the playground puts Ava down because she’s different. They will tell her she’s broken, flawed, damaged, deficient, defective, and bad, because kids can be jerks and that’s what they do. I know it’s inevitable. But articles like this aren’t going to help make those moments less frequent.
Can we stop, please? Can we stop acting like this is a battle against defects, and start treating diagnoses as opportunities to accommodate differences in the way our minds work? Can we stop painting different as scary or something to be pitied? Because while it may be easier to paint things in shades of black and white, and it may make for some highly trafficked news content, I’ve got a kid out there who will pay the price for our intellectual sloth.
Read the study if you like. But stop sharing the bullshit headlines.