Autism DOES NOT Create Mass Murderers

Today

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:

http://www.today.com/video/new-details-emerge-about-oregon-shooters-mother-539317827583

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

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The Top Five Autism-Related Posts from Seriously Not Boring

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Another Autism Awareness/Acceptance/Action month is drawing to a close, and I hope that everyone’s efforts made a difference. This world becomes a better place every time someone new reads about Autism and learns to be more accepting. To close out the month here are this page’s Top Five posts about Autism in the hopes that you might find them helpful. These are the topics that seem to have resonated the most with readers, even years later. I feel honored and overwhelmed that when we share our journey it has the potential to help others.

#5. Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket. Many years ago, when the Ninjas were very small, we were new to the Autism world and spent a lot of time feeling confused and overwhelmed. A difficult incident happened in a grocery store, but the graciousness and compassion showed to us by the employees there helped us through it. I wrote this piece for the Parents Magazine special needs blog. NOTE: This is a change from the original article that was featured at #5. Because reasons.

#4. The Talk: How I explained my son’s Autism diagnosis to him.

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There is no shame in Autism. When my son was old enough I wanted to explain his unique brain to him in a positive way, because how you do it is incredibly important and can affect a child’s self-image for the rest of their life. I wrote: “… I had to be very careful with my words and how I presented Autism. There is still so much stigma in attached to special needs, or even to simply being different (not in my mind, but society seems to feel otherwise). I didn’t want him to see himself as flawed, or view his diagnosis as restrictive, limiting his expectations of what he could achieve in life. I did not want the truth to be damaging. I wanted it to be illuminative and empowering. I hoped that having knowledge of Autism would improve his understanding of how his brain works and help him be more patient with himself.” A version of this story also appeared on the website The MightyContinue reading

What I learned by having a “viral” video

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Two months ago a video of  a sea lion playing with my son, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, unexpectedly got a lot of attention.  An earlier post talks more about the story behind the video, as well as why I decided to make a personal moment public. Basically I thought it was cute and my friends and family might like to see it, other special needs parents might be able to relate, and it was an opportunity to spread Autism Awareness. What I didn’t expect was that within a week’s time it would have over 90,000 views and be spread all over the world (no, not one of those “mega-viral” 1 million views kind of videos, but still a surprising reach). Before I posted it to the internet I was convinced I had thought things through, but the results still caught me off guard. I found the whole unexpected process incredibly exciting and incredibly exhausting. I recently agreed to do a television interview about the experience, and you can watch it here on the website for ABC affiliate WRIC Channel 8. They called it, “Going Viral: What You Need to Know Before Posting Online”. I did the interview and wrote this post in the hopes that by sharing some of our crazy journey it might help other people in a similar situation. I don’t have any advice for you if you have a video that you hope to turn mega viral and use to make lots of money. But if you have a story you want to tell or content to share, and want some tips on how to protect your rights and your family in the process, then keep reading. Yes, when this all started I thought it was possible we might make a bit of money, but that was not my main goal. I just wanted to share a cute video of my cute kid and thought it might also help people.

First, and very important, ask yourself if the benefits from what you post will outweigh the risks. What do you hope to get out of the experience, and is it worth what you will give up? If you just want your 15 minutes of fame you need to be prepared for the loss of privacy and the scrutiny that comes with it. All that attention from strangers feels good for about a whole day, but then in a flash you are yesterday’s news. If you are doing it to make money, let me just say you probably won’t make very much. If you are allowing yourself or your story to enter the public eye because you have something important to share, or you want to help people, then I applaud you. I have a new-found respect for anyone willing to make a public stand for what they believe in, because it is a scary thing to make yourself vulnerable to the prying eyes, and possible criticism, of strangers. That part was what scared me the most. Before I posted the video of my son I thought it through as carefully as I could. It’s not a video that makes fun of him or something he will be embarrassed by when he gets older. I asked his permission before sharing it, as well as before I shared that he has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, because it was important to me that I have his consent. I made sure that throughout the whole process my son was treated with respect. Even though I thought that it could be an opportunity help spread awareness and acceptance, I tried to make sure it didn’t sensationalize Autism or exploit my son. I also asked myself if I was compromising the safety of my family by allowing our video to been seen publicly. Is the loss of your privacy worth it? I felt safer about releasing our video because my son’s face was obscured in shadow. At the time we had not decided if we wanted to publicly release his image. I should have been more emotionally prepared for the fact that even if I didn’t release his image, it would get out there (more on that in a bit).

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“It’s Nice to See You, Sophie!”

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After waiting for weeks we finally had a day with good weather, open schedule, and healthy family members, so the four of us were able to head back to the Zoo this past weekend. Our last trip there had surprising results when a video of my youngest son playing with a sea lion  caught the attention of the media. It also turned into an unexpected opportunity to spread Autism Awareness (you can read about our experience here). My children had been anxious to go back and visit Sophie one more time before the heat of summer, and they still wanted to get a good look at Bao Bao before she got much bigger.

My son, Alex, has been talking about Sophie for weeks and he couldn’t wait to go back and play with her. I wanted to prepare him for the fact that she might not “recognize” him (aka: she may not want to play with visitors that day). Alex has a form of Autism, and it is very important to help him be mentally prepared as much as possible for experiences, both good and bad. We talked about the fact that even if Sophie didn’t want to play it would still be a nice day at the zoo and we would enjoy seeing the animals. Secretly I prayed that he wouldn’t be disappointed, and had an ace up my sleeve. Actually, it wasn’t an ace, it was a shiny pink ball.

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The Story Behind “Sea Lion Shadow”

A short video featuring a gleeful little boy playing follow-the-leader with a sea lion somehow turned into a viral story that spread across the globe. That boy is my son, and I never dreamed that a visit to the zoo could be the catalyst for such a surprising chain of events and an unexpected opportunity, with my son’s permission, to share special-needs awareness.

(Note: revised and abridged version HERE)

My children love animals, and had been anxiously anticipating a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. They could not wait to meet Bao Bao, the new baby panda. The first day that weather and circumstances permitted we jumped into the car for a trek up North, leaving early so that we could be on the zoo grounds before the buildings opened. Our intent was to get in line to see Bao Bao right as her exhibit opened, before the crowd got too large. Our walk to the pandas took us past the  took us past the Sea Lion exhibit, and we entered an underground observation area which provided a clear glimpse beneath the surface of their watery enclosure. No one else was around. A young sea lion almost immediately appeared at the glass and stared straight at my 7-year-old son, seemingly attracted to the contrasting colors on his coat. The beautiful animal began to shadow his movements and Alex cried out, “He LIKES ME!” Little did we know at the time that the sea lion was actually a girl, named Sophie, and that Sophie regularly initiates games with her visitors. My son was simply happy that, for just a moment, Sophie was choosing to play with him. I watched it, transfixed, and then realized, “I SHOULD BE RECORDING THIS!” I fumbled for the camera, fully expecting that by the time I was ready to preserve the precious encounter it would be over. While I recorded she kept pace for several minutes, surfacing only for air. I began to make suggestions (“Move left. Freeze!”) to test if she was truly mimicking him. This caused my oldest son, Zachary, to remark, “She is TOTALLY following him!” Alex, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, could barely contain his joy and shouted, “THIS IS THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!” He often struggles with feelings of isolation, as do many children with special needs, and to see him so happy and in sync with his new friend struck a chord deep within my heart. Time seemed to freeze and we were mesmerized watching the two moving together as if in a dance. There was the feeling that we were alone with a magical creature in our own beautiful world.  

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