Ed. Note: On Wednesday, Americans witnessed another mass shooting, this one at a center for people with developmental disabilities in San Bernardino. According to one website, this brings the total number of mass shootings – defined as involving four or more victims – in 2015 to 352. VoiceWaves contributor Ben Novotny writes that in previous shootings, gun rights advocates and others attempted to draw a link between the violence and those with mental health conditions such as autism and Aspberger’s. Such efforts, he says, perpetuate harmful stereotypes that individuals with these conditions are “cold, calculating killing machines.”
Evie May is a teen YouTube personality who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurological condition often likened to a mild form of autism, when she was nine. On her many vlogs she discusses how she deals with the syndrome and how it affects her relationships with her family and everyone around her.
In one of her vlogs, Evie May reads aloud some of the many messages she’s received from her followers. One in particular states, “don’t go and shoot a bunch of kindergarteners.”
A reference to the spate of school shootings that have struck communities across the country, the note points to a disturbing trend among those who see people on the autism spectrum as at best emotionally disconnected individuals, and at worst potential killers.
The note, says Evie May, made her “really mad, and kind of sad” that there are those who think people with Asperger’s “will go and do something violent.”
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was 4 years old. And despite the notion that people with Aspberger’s are devoid of empathy, my own experience says otherwise.
I spent a year and a half taking care of my 90-year old grandmother – driving her to the doctors office, driving her to the hospital, feeding her right up to the day she died. When I saw her body being taken away I burst into tears, and when I saw her casket being put in the ground I cried some more.
The idea that people with Aspberger’s have no regard for human life is offensive to me, and should be offensive to any family with a child or an adult with the condition.
Asperger’s Syndrome was recently dropped from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts continue to debate whether or not it belongs on the autism spectrum at all. Some describe it as a sort of “high functioning autism,” while others argue it is an entirely different diagnosis.
People with Aspberger’s often struggle in social settings. They find it hard to make eye contact or understand other forms of non-verbal communication, and can therefore seem aloof or indifferent. The reality is many do want to engage, but don’t know how.
Unfortunately, the tragic shootings at schools around the country have helped to draw a deeper link between Aspberger’s – and autism more generally – with a propensity for violence.
The 2012 shooting at Newtown Connecticut was one of the most high profile tragedies to cast a public glare on Asperger’s. Adam Lanza, the 20-year old shooter who gunned down 20 six and seven-year olds, along with six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary reportedly was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Then there is the case of Christopher Harper-Mercer, the 26-year-old gunman who in October shot and killed nine people at a community college in Oregon. Harper-Mercer reportedly had autism, according to his mother.
A Facebook group called “Families Against Autistic Shooters” was created soon after the Oregon shooting. The page characterized autistic children as “cold, calculating killing machines with no regard for human life.”
Facebook initially left the page up, but a flood of protest from families with autistic members quickly followed. Protestors argued the page’s characterization of those with autism as killers is a form of hate speech and “further perpetuates harmful stereotypes of those on the autism spectrum.”
Facebook ultimately removed the page, though there remains a chorus of political leaders and others who continue to try and drive the link between mental disorders like Aspberger’s with tragedies such as those at Newtown. For the growing number of Americans with Aspberger’s or autism, the effect can be chilling.
According to CNN, 1 in 68 children in the United States are now on the autism spectrum, a 30 percent increase from just two years ago. While there are people with autism who go on to lead productive lives, there are others that are unable to live independently, with some unable even to speak.
I have dealt with the challenges that come with Aspberger’s. I’ve gotten angry countless times, and struggled in social settings. But unlike Lanza or Mercer, never once did I consider going out and shooting a bunch of strangers. Never crossed my mind. These two shooters should be seen as the anomaly and not the norm when it comes to the Autism community.
Evie May has not posted any new vlogs on her YouTube channel in over a year, but in her last video she spoke about how she won a modeling contract. It goes to show that people with Aspberger’s aren’t soulless killers, but individuals with dreams and goals just like the rest of us.