Since its inception, I’ve reserved this blog for “paranormal” phenomena in teaching, learning, and higher education. Today, however, I’m going off-reservation.
By now, most of you have read Liza Long’s gut-wrenching essay about living with and loving her emotionally volatile, thirteen year-old son. (You may have also read some of the “controversy” surrounding her widely-circulated blog post.) Long’s essay was inspired – - if that’s the right word – - by the obscene events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Despite its title, the blog post is really a plea for help for parents with “mentally ill” children: “This problem is too big for me to handle on my own,” she writes of her son, who has been variously diagnosed with ADHD, autism spectrum, oppositional defiance or intermittent explosive disorder.
Without a doubt, parents like Liza Long need help, and kids like her son, Michael, need help.
However, as the father of a sixteen-year old son diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), I have to tell you that Long’s essay delivers an outrageous disservice to kids like mine, to parents of non-neurotypical kids, to the enormous energy and labor of those in the ASD “community,” and ultimately even to the non-ASD, neurotypical world.
First, some basics. We don’t know that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, was ever diagnosed with ASD (or the more particular variant of ASD called Asperger Syndrome). We do know that the media has reported the rumor that Lanza had Asperger Syndrome. We also know that the media has spent more time misinforming us about the events in Newtown than reporting actual facts. In the absence of facts, Long’s blog post only helps to sensationalize, and so to mystify, the very meagre connections among ASD, mental illness, and violence. The more than 2 million Americans directly affected by ASD deserve better than to be fed into the media’s relentless echo chamber.
Second, even if Lanza had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, autism is not a mental illness. I need to repeat that: autism is not a mental illness. Autism, or the more recently-termed ASD, is a word used to describe ”a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.” In other words, ASD belongs to a broad family of disorders that includes: Alzheimer’s, carpal tunnel syndrome, dyslexia, Guilllain-Barre syndrome, and Parkinson’s. ASD is not the same as or intrinsically-related to mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, etc.
Why is this distinction important? First, it matters to ASD’ers. Imagine that you were affected by dyslexia but were viewed as mentally ill. Imagine how that would change the way you were treated by friends, colleagues, medical professionals, and institutions. Second, once you understand this difference, you might understand some ASD behaviors – - repetitive movements, social difficulties, conversational fixations, etc. – - a little more clearly and humanely. And, you might understand that, although their brains work differently than yours, kids and adults on the spectrum are no more prone to violence, crime, delusion, or sociopathy than you are.
From my non-clinically trained perspective, serial and spree murderers must suffer some horrible condition. However, to use “mental illness,” as Long does in her piece, to connect ASD with homicidal violence is – - putting it as lightly and politely as I can – - abysmally stupid, irresponsible, and injurious. In fact, if my son’s experience is at all typical, ASD kids and adults are much, much more likely to be the victims of violence – - in the schoolyard, on the street, and even in the home – - than the perpetrators of violence.
So, Long’s declaration of solidarity and identity (“I am Adam Lanza’s mother”) rests on a whole series of shady, wrong, insulting and - – given the heated rhetoric developing around Sand Hook – - potentially very damaging illogical leaps and turns.
But, putting aside all of these problems, let’s take a look at the declaration of solidarity itself.
“I am sharing this story because,” Long writes, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’ mother. I am Jared Laughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother.” Even as a symbolic statement, I have to say that this is just utter bullshit. Why? Because neither Liza Long, nor you, nor I can ever begin to imagine the guilt, shame, and remorse experienced by these parents in the aftermath of their respective tragedies. Because this kind of conflation demeans and diminishes the pain each of these parents experienced, and continue to experience, in the wake of their childrens’ actions. And, because the only solidarity this statement proposes is the empty but infinitely elastic status of victimage. Pity me, the now famous “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” epithet declares, because my son done me wrong!
Here’s how I answer Liza Long’s cry for help: “I am not Adam Lanza’s mother (or father)! And . . .to hell with pity!” I don’t need help because I’m the parent of a potential spree killer. Parents of ASD kids and adults need help because their children must live in a world that constantly misunderstands them (often by equating ASD with mental illness) and consistently punishes them – - via peers, schools, bloggers, etc. – - for their differences.
In fact, I refuse to ask for help, divine or otherwise; my son and I refuse to be victims. We simply demand the legal and human right to equality. And, that “we” is important, because we (and not just the talking heads of the media-entertainment complex) are already talking. More importantly, that “we” includes all of those autonomous communities of solidarity that are organizing, mobilizing, and struggling against pity and fear – - and for self-understanding and equality. This is no small task, and it harbors its own, particular amalgam of disappointment, hope, anger, joy and all those other emotions familiar to every parent.
Let me ask you this: given the work ahead, who has time to pretend to be somebody else’s mother?