Autism and Public Perception
by Judy Endow
Today we have added something to our public perception of autism. Historically that perception has been one of an isolated small child rocking or head banging, oblivious to the rest of the world. Even though that perception is wrong, it is the public perception. There is an addition to that perception in the past few years. It seems society has added an adult image of autism. It is another false image, but never-the-less, quickly becoming an accepted public image of what it means to be an adult autistic. Unfortunately for all of society, that image is of a shooter. Not any shooter, but a mass shooter.
With each mass shooting tragedy, an interesting phenomenon occurs. If the shooter is a person of color we label the event as an act of terrorism. If the shooter is white we pull out the mental health or autism angle.
Most of the mass shootings in the USA have been by young adult white males. Early on in the reporting, when the nation is glued to the news story, autism is questioned. It seems to be the new favorite buzzword of news reporter’s sense making of mass shootings by young adult white males.
The fact of the matter is that of the almost 50 mass shootings in the USA in recent times almost none of the shooters were autistic. Even so, the public perception that shooters are autistic has been developed. The way this happens is that early on, when we are all paying attention to the news on the newest mass shooting tragedy, the autism question is raised. Then, several days later, when most of us are no longer closely following the story, the fact that the shooter was not autistic surfaces.
Because autism was connected early on in the reporting of shootings, it sticks in the minds of the general public. Even though it is not true it has now become pseudo public knowledge and therefore a generally held societal belief that mass shooters are autistic.
I realized the public image of adult autistics as mass shooters has taken hold because of the following things that have happened recently in my life:
- In two separate school consultations in the past 6 months school staff have expressed concern that their particular student would become a shooter. One student was a fourth grader who had a behavior of dropping to the floor while screaming and crying. The other student was a seventh grader who pushed his books off his desk and yelled, “no” in response to becoming overwhelmed. I have been an autism consultant in schools for many years. These behaviors are typical results of disregulation in students with autism. When sensory diets and visual supports are put in place the behavior typically subsides. Never in all the years I have consulted have school staff voiced concern that students with these sorts of behaviors might become a mass shooter.
- I was told by an acquaintance that I could become the next mass shooter because I am autistic. This person went on to tell me that everybody knows autistic people do not have empathy and therefore have no feelings for others. I was told that it is impossible for me (or any autistic) to be a caring or compassionate person and therefore I could be the next mass shooter. This belief is wrong. The facts are autistics do have empathy and do have all the same feelings other people have. Most of the time autistics experience feelings so intensely it causes an emotional shut down. Unfortunately, when John Q. Public holds an erroneous image of adult autistics as shooters, all the facts in the world do not change his belief that he now considers factual.
- An autistic acquaintance reported her eight-year-old autistic son woke her up in the wee hours of the morning very upset and crying. He expressed fear that he would shoot people when he grew up because he was autistic.
- A Facebook hate page popped up called Families Against Autistic Shooters. Petitions were signed more than once in attempts to get Facebook to remove the page. Once it was removed it took but a few hours before it was again up and running. Here is a link to a story about this https://www.yahoo.com/health/internet-rallies-to-remove-facebook-page-linking-013122755.html
It seems our society has adopted yet another false belief around autism. I am quite concerned over how this might play out. We are living in a time when we are in need of putting together increasing numbers of transition programs that include housing for our young adults needing that sort of support. What will this mean in terms of employment and housing opportunities for our young adults on the spectrum?
Even though this has untold impact on autistic people themselves, it is a larger societal issue. As there become more and more supposed reasons to shove autistic people out of their place in society please know that this sort of set up, if allowed to continue, will short change all of society. Autistics may need supports to live in this world AND autistics have contributed mightily to our modern society. We would not be using many modern inventions, electronics, medical advances, and technology if it were not for the contribution of autistic people over history. Society cannot afford to squelch the contributions of autistics alive today or those who will be born in the future. To do so would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Therefore, I encourage all people who fashion themselves to reasonably intelligent not to swallow hook, line and sinker, the assumption that shooters are autistic. It is false and it will only lead to you developing an unfounded fear. Whenever fear of an already marginalized group occurs history has shown that the results are horrific. Please do not be part of society going there. You can inform yourself.
If you want to read about the history so as not to repeat it check out Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman.
If you want to get a true picture of what autistic people are like and you have an aversion to finding out from actually autistic people, please read Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism by Barry Prizant.
Both books were released late summer of this year.
BOOKS AND DVDs BY JUDY ENDOW
Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2006). Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.
Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.
Endow, J. (2009). Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2009). The Power of Words: How we think about people with autism spectrum disorders matters! Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2010). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Myles,, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013). The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.