The news media dropped a double stinker this time, at the scene of a horrendous massacre in Newtown, CT. Major news outlets as well as countless bloggers (1), named the wrong guy the killer and (2), set the autism support movement back a few decades by fostering false stereotypes. Whatever happened to ethics in journalism?
Ryan Lanza was initially identified incorrectly as the man who killed his father in Hoboken, NJ, then travelled to Newtown, CT and mowed down his mother and her entire kindergarten class, as well as six other adults. He'll likely be a permanent presence on internet search engines, but at least he can change his name to ease the stigma somewhat.
Autistic people don't have that opportunity.
Talking heads bloviated about the subject, their limited knowledge not preventing them from forging ahead anyway, describing Adam Lanza, when they finally got the name right, as a lonerand a goth and as odd and aloof. Then they claimed he lacked empathy, which somehow morphed into the autism spectrum and Asperger's Syndrome, which they described as a mental illness.
The evolving diagnosis of Adam's affliction appeared to be stand-alone theory stated as fact, unsupported by a doctor familiar with Adam.
Author Phyllis Gilman wrote in The New York Times of December 17, 2012, "Don't Blame Autism for Newtown." The mother of an autistic child, she railed against the uninformed stereotypes advanced by the news media.
Contrary to the misreporting, she writes, children with autism, which is not a mental illness, by the way, do not lack empathy.
"Children with autism may have trouble understanding the motivations and non-verbal cues of others, be socially naÃ¯ve and have difficulty expressing their emotions in words, but they are typically more truthful and less manipulative than neurotypical children and are often people of great integrity. They can also have a strong desire to connect with others and they can be intensely empathetic -- they just attempt those connections and express that empathy in unconventional ways."
Ms. Gilman further states: "And if study after study has definitively established that a person with autism is no more likely to be violent or engage in criminal behavior than a neurotypical person, it is just as clear that autistic people are far more likely to be the victims of bullying and emotional and physical abuse by parents and caregivers than other children. So there is a sad irony in making autism the agent or the cause rather than regarding it as the target of violence."
Her own child with autism, she writes, is the most "empathetic and honorable of her three children."
I am the parent of an autistic adult. He is non-verbal, but communicates warmth, humor and joy, which have endeared him to others since he was a child. He's not normal, or neurotypical, and he knows it, but makes the best of his lot in life. Empathy is one of his strong points.
Parents, teachers and other supporters of autistic folks work diligently to bring out the best in their charges, teaching proper behavior and manners, as well as life skills. Our autistic children and their families are the grateful beneficiaries of dedicated supporters whose goal is to help their students lead fulfilling lives as independently as possible.
Many autistic adults live in group homes in communities. They have jobs, volunteer, do chores, go on vacations and to concerts. They fall in love.
Supporters of autistic folks have worked for years educating the public about this neuro development disorder. Their children or clients may be non-verbal, they may not match the observer's idea of normal, but they are not murdering monsters.
So how did those media big guns get the information so unethically wrong?
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