Autism does NOT equal mass shooter. However, the media often includes information in their stories that may lead the general public to make that assumption. Right now the tragic and senseless shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon is all over the news, as well as the subject of Autism. For example, the Today show ran a news clip on 10/6/2015 (the day of this post), with the description that “Information about the gunman in last week’s mass shooting in Oregon is emerging, indicating that his mother may have had an impact on his fascination with guns.” Then the first part of the piece proceeded to discuss not guns, but Autism. Here is a link to the clip:
The reporter Miguel Amaguer says, “Starling new revelations about the mother of Chris Harper-Mercer, a shooter who killed nine people at Umpqua Community College last week. For over a decade Laurel Harper, a registered nurse, offered online advice on various medical issues like Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum disorder that she wrote both she and her son struggled with.”
The story also mentioned that Harper wrote of dealing with a “screaming autistic head banger.” Why was that necessary? It then without explanation segued into the portion that was actually related to the story’s description: that the mother’s involvement with guns and the way she exposed her son to them may have possibly helped contribute to her son’s obsession with firearms.
So what was the link that viewers were supposed to make between the “new information” about Autism within the family, and the new information about their involvement with guns? What was Today trying to imply? Why was Autism even relevant to a story that seemed to be about the fact that the mother taught her son how to shoot guns?
It seemed to me to be to be a sensationalistic treatment of Autism, NOT relevant to the story, and disrespectful to Autistic people in general.
Stories like these are potentially damaging and can help foster the fear and stigma that is so often faced by Autistic individuals.
(Update: I did not address the gun issue in this post because this is a discussion about Autism. My point is that the news report purported to be about guns, but then also included seemingly unrelated information about Autism. I am not making any sort of commentary about guns one way or another. While it is an important discussion, that was not my focus here.)
Years ago, while the world was reeling from what transpired at Sandy Hook, best-selling Author John Elder Robison wrote an article for Psychology Today called “Asperger’s, Autism, and Mass Murder.” Speculation had arisen then, as now, that the shooter may have had Asperger’s. Robison is himself Autistic (he describes himself using both terms Asperger’s and Autistic), and warned, “Let’s stop the rush to judgment.” He also stated plainly, “Correlation does not imply causation.” Continue reading