Every time I read or hear about another violent multi-victim crime, I hold my breath, and I wait. How is this crime going to be described? Who are the victims? How are they painted? Do we hold up the most seemingly innocent first, as a way to make the crime seem that much more obscene in the eyes of those watching from afar?
And the perpetrator – what do we hear about him (because, for whatever reason, they are almost always men)?
Evil. Insane. Mentally ill. Autistic.
This. This is what I wait to hear every time. And almost every time, I hear some variation of the above. We are still, as a culture, feeding the stereotype of mentally ill people as being possessed (“evil”). It can’t possibly be a medical condition, or a result of decades of abuse, or something that can be socio-scientifically understood. It is a character flaw, and something that comes from not being strong enough to withstand the temptation of the devil. And people with mental illness are uncontrollably violent and dangerous.
And then there are the autistic people. They’re so unpredictable. They show no empathy, so you just know that they’re capable of something like a mass murder. They wouldn’t feel anything after such an event. They’re volatile, and heartless, and already pretty much psychopaths. Is it any wonder when they’re accused of horrible events?
I live with mental illness.
I am autistic.
One of my children lives with mental illness.
Both of them are autistic.
None of the three of us is going to suddenly snap and kill everyone in our wake. In fact, all three of us are at much higher risk of experiencing violence as victims than we are of committing acts of violence ourselves. Media and cultural focus on mental illness and/or autism as a significant risk factor for violent acts puts the three of us at even higher risk of experiencing violence at the hands of those trying to protect the rest of the world from us.
I have seen some in the autistic community speak out, separating autism from mental illness in relation to yesterday’s tragedy. This is a shortsighted move, and a dangerous one. Claiming that the shooter (whose name I will not share) was mentally ill and that autism had nothing to do with his actions indicates agreement with the idea that mental illness was the cause. Given that over 2/3 of autistic individuals will also experience a significant mental illness over the course of a lifetime, this lack of solidarity does none of us any favours.
How do we shift the discourse? I had a conversation with my 12-year-old last night about the incident. Here is his (autistic) feedback:
His first question upon hearing about the incident: “Where did he get the gun?”
Pretty practical question, no? Doesn’t delve into motivation, mental health, or what he may have eaten for breakfast. Killings were accomplished with a gun, so let’s trace the origin of the weapon. Sounds like a logical starting point.
I explained that the culture of guns in the United States is very different than that in Canada, mostly because of the Second Amendment.
His response? “Think about it this way. If the Second Amendment were never made then people would not need guns for self defence because nobody would have guns in the first place.”
Uh, yeah. The US has created its own internal arms race with the Second Amendment as its justification. Pretty astute observation.
When I told him that it was reported that the shooter was autistic, he got a confused look on his face: “Who says his doing it had anything to do with autism?”
He could not fathom how anyone would connect autism to mass murder. It just didn’t compute.
He ended the conversation with,”Walmart sells semi automatic guns?”
I am not arguing that some people aren’t more likely to commit acts of violence. I’m not even saying that it’s impossible that psychotic or schizophrenic people can’t be compelled to do these acts. I know it’s possible. I also know that the compelling voices aren’t an across-the-board symptom of either of those conditions. I know that one can only be compelled by one’s brain to do something if one has access to the tools to carry it out. I know that one’s risk factors increase if one does not have access to affordable and appropriate mental health services.
You want to put an end to this kind of violent crime? Don’t lay it at the feet of “the insane” or “the autistic.” Question your cultural values: is having ready access to guns made specifically to kill multiple people in a short period of time a legitimate interpretation of the Second Amendment? Is the “Gd-given right” to protect yourself from tyranny worth the lives of the people who were murdered yesterday? Is the philosophy of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps more important than a country prioritizing funding for excellent accessible mental health services (and don’t think Canada is doing much better with mental health – especially for children)?
The cultural/media slant of yesterday’s incident has put my entire family and so many others at increased risk of stigma and physical violence. Change the conversation. Make all of us safer.