Dear Ms. Gallagher, I am terrified.
I recently read your article on Yahoo news - titled “When Science Doesn’t Count”. It is the latest in a choking wave of hatred towards the Autistic community that has overflowed since the Newton massacre last Friday. I am tired. In fact, I am exhausted. But your article inspired such fear in me that I knew I had to respond.
Autism is not a mental illness. It is a neurodevelopmental disability that causes issues with sensory processing, social interaction and communication. None of those lead to methodical, premeditated violence such as the shooting that occurred in Connecticut on Friday, regardless of the sources you provided. The vague references to “aggression” in the studies you referenced are broadly defined. Aggression is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, and some Autistic people engage in behaviors like self-harming out of frustration or for sensory reasons. “Aggression” can be inwardly as well as outwardly directed. And a study conducted recently by Danish epidemiologists shows that Autistic people are, in fact, nearly twenty times less likely to be violent than the general population.
Autistic people can have co-morbid conditions, conditions that exist alongside with autism. These conditions run the gamut, and can sometimes include mental illnesses like psychosis. Yes, autistic people can be psychotic, just like neurotypical people. Autistic people can also be influenced by violent video games, the media, and all other things in our society that could lead to someone thinking it would be a good idea to shoot up an elementary school. They are not monsters who are the embodiment of our fears, nor are they angels in plastic bubbles who are protected from the worst our society has to offer. They are, quite simply, people like you and me.
How do I know this? Why do I care? Because, although I am not autistic myself, I am neurodivergent - I have cerebral palsy and several mental illnesses, all of which affect the way my brain functions. And Autistic people are my friends. No, not “friends” in that after-school special sense, where I am forced to interact with them or I talk to them out of pity or some misguided sense of heroics. They are actually, truly my friends. I can think of at least ten off the top of my head and I know there are many more. They are fun, funny, witty, and awesome - just like my non-Autistic friends. Not one of them would dream of ever hurting another human being deliberately. And lest you respond that the relatively small (in the grand scheme of things) percentage of Autistic people I know does not represent the Autistic population as a whole, I remind you that the small percentage of Autistic people you blogged about who you held up as examples of the link between aggression and autism do not represent the Autistic population as a whole either.
My Autistic friends run the gamut. Some have limited verbal skills, where others are quite verbose. Some were diagnosed as children, others as adults. Some have co-morbid conditions such as epilepsy, while others do not. They are of all backgrounds, races, and ages. They are as diverse as any cross-section of the population, except for the one fact they have in common - they are all Autistic.
It’s not all unicorns and rainbows either. I’ve witnessed an Autistic friend have a meltdown in the middle of a Metro station. I’ve seen Autistics who will literally wander out into traffic. And I’ve encountered the fear that parents of Autistics face - the fear that they will not be able to keep their children safe. None of these parents fear for themselves - instead they fear for their children. In the wake of a society which deems autism an “epidemic” and a “tsunami”, Autistics are being actively persecuted. No one who even seems Autistic is safe. Your article marks parents (mostly mothers, for some odd reason; Autistics do have fathers too, you know) as the victims of a cruel “domestic violence”, but the truth is, in liberating parents, you shackled their children. By suggesting that Autistic people are violent, you have influenced the people of our society, who treat online news media like it’s the new Bible, to fear and despise a whole community of people. Are you proud of that fact? Because it sickens me. Autistic people are tortured. Autistic people are murdered. Because people are terrified of autism. Autistics have been fighting for so long to be heard, to push past the irrational fear of autism that stems from a fear of difference and disability. This latest incident has set back those few creeping advances indefinitely, and you have directly contributed to it. You suggest that Autistic people should be institutionalized. Hitler had institutions too. They were called concentrations camps. And disabled people were some of the first to be warehoused and later murdered there.
I am not Autistic. Sadly, that simple declaration earns me more respect than my Autistic peers, because I am deemed worth listening to. But if you really want to listen, you’ll talk to actual Autistic people, who are actually fearing for their lives right now. I’d be all too happy to direct you to the blogs of many Autistic people I love and respect. I can only hope you’ll take my advice. You may not think science counts, but Autistic people do. They have a voice. And they are finally speaking.
Sincerely, Cara Liebowitz
Very well said.