12 March 2014

I am autistic, and I am obsessed with violence.

Trigger warning: Discussion of murder, other violence, ableism, various mass shootings, mention of rape, discussion of forced psychiatric treatment, brief description of the JRC, terrorism, 9/11, probably a lot of other triggers.


I am autistic, and I am obsessed with violence.
A response to Andrew Solomon's article about his interviews with Peter Lanza in The New Yorker 


An old man falls to his death from a cliff, staring in horror and despair at his loved one standing on the edge.

This is one of my first memories of playing pretend games with my younger sister.

In other pretend games, I wanted to be a man wrongfully accused of being a spy and then sentenced to death, or sometimes a robber caught by the police and then sent to prison. In preschool, I became obsessed with Disney’s Snow White. One day at school, I gave everyone little clumps of play dough and told them it was poisoned, just like the poisoned apple in the movie. The teacher called my parents.

In second grade, I started a pretend game with my friends where my character drank poisoned water, turned into a demon, and started chasing her children. My first stories, written between kindergarten and sixth grade, involved abandoned children, abusive siblings, poisonings, assassinations, prison escapes, and horrible torture.

In eighth grade, I wrote my first novel. The plotline follows the tyrannical dictator of one country who decides to murder a well-loved official in the country next door, frame someone else for the crime, and then use the distraction as an excuse to invade.

The same year, I read Helter Skelter, the true crime story of the Charles Manson cult murders written by Vincent Bugliosi, who was the prosecutor in the case. When I brought the book to school, one of the teachers took me aside and told me that was inappropriate reading.

When I started high school, I wrote my second novel, which starts with the assassination of the U.S. President by a terrorist group.



Image description: A very young me, fifth grade, sitting in the classroom with my sleeve against my lips, reading a book in the Animorphs series while other books and binders are piled on my desk. Photo by Rebecca Taplin. I'm wearing a school uniform, long sleeve maroon polo shirt, khaki pants. Behind me are shelves with messily arranged binders and notebooks.


After the Virginia Tech shootings by Seung-Hui Cho, Cho’s writing assignments became a huge deal in the media. His two short plays were full of profanity and violence. I read them when one news source uploaded copies online.

I didn’t know how to express the feelings I had at the time, but I think I’m beginning to understand now.

This week, The New Yorker ran an exclusive article by Andrew Solomon about his interviews with Peter Lanza, the father of the Sandy Hook shooter. In parts of the article, Solomon lingers on Adam Lanza’s apparent obsession with violence. According to Peter, his son was obsessed with genocide, serial killers, and mass murder. He wrote extremely violent fiction on top of reading extensively about other people’s real violence.

Solomon, who is also the author of the recent nonfiction book Far From The Tree (problematic for other reasons), wonders whether these should have been taken as warning signs. Peter is more direct when he talks about his son and whether his killing spree could have been predicted, and presumably stopped, before it happened.

I read Solomon’s descriptions of Adam, and I was crying because most of what he wrote could have been written about me if you changed the names. When he suggested that Adam’s obsession with reading and writing about extreme violence could have been a warning sign, I became terrified. Not because I’m afraid that people in power will start using that as an excuse for hurting people like me, but because I know they already do and I’m afraid it will happen even more.


Believe me, I understand what it’s like to be desperate for answers, for an explanation, when tragedy happens. While I am not the surviving relative of a high-profile mass murderer, I experience total devastation and complete obsession with finding an explanation in the aftermath of any outbreak of horrible violence. Every time. It’s hard to put the feeling into words, but the phrases that come to mind are ones like these: a thousand punches to the gut, complete frantic overload in my brain, nameless things dismantle.

Like many other autistics, I am deeply empathetic, and easily and often overwhelmed by emotional overload. I experience the emotions of people around me – no matter whether I know them or whether they’re strangers – as though they are my own emotions, and that’s on top of and combined with the ones that came from me first.

I was only eight years old when September 11 happened, but as an American citizen living near Boston, it would have been impossible for the terrorist attacks not to affect me.

I say I understand the desperate, obsessive search for answers because I have lived it.

The events of September 11 lit a fire in me and I became desperate to understand, intellectually and emotionally, just why it happened and what reasons the attackers had when they did it. For the next ten years, I became obsessed with the topic of Islamic-inspired terrorism. If an article, book, or website existed that covered the topic – no matter whose point of view it was from – I read every word with fascination. That interest led me to explore the history and reality of other forms of terrorism, including Christian-inspired terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism, eco-terrorism, just about any kind of terrorism that’s ever been named.

The same interest also led me to explore Islam itself as a religion, as the basis for many cultures and civilizations, and as a social and legal system. At the same time, I also became extremely interested in learning about national security policy, counterterrorism operations, and the role of anti-brown racism and Islamophobia as tools of white supremacy and American imperialism. By the time I was in twelfth grade, I decided that I wanted to study Islamic Studies in college and later go on to study for a PhD focusing on Sufi music in Pakistan.

Right now, I’m an Arabic major studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, and this is a direct result of my long obsession with understanding why and how September 11 happened.



Image description: Me with serious expression wearing a gray t-shirt against a black background, holding both my arms in front of my body. Text that I wrote in black pen says, "I don't understand how many people can hate" in English on one arm and in Arabic on the other arm. Photo by Robert X. Fogarty for the Dear World Project at Georgetown University in March 2012. 


After the Virginia Tech shootings, I read news articles that described Seung-Hui Cho as a socially awkward loner who had been bullied in the past. As much as I empathized with his victims and their living loved ones, I also instinctively empathized with him too.

This doesn’t mean that I’m somehow okay with murder or that I think he’s less guilty or that his crimes should be excused or ignored. It just means that my empathy is not selective, and I don’t think that that’s a bad thing.


Both Peter Lanza and Andrew Solomon said outright that autism shouldn’t be treated as if it’s related to Adam’s killing spree. But that doesn’t change the tone of the article at all, which talks about Adam’s diagnosis and various autistic characteristics in a way that reminds me of a freak show, or a post-mortem zoo exhibit. If the fact that Adam was autistic isn’t related to the fact that he killed twenty-six people, then why spend so much time focusing on his autistic traits in an article that’s mostly about his father’s attempt to figure out why and how this happened?

Plenty of readers will read the disclaimer that autism didn’t play a role in the killing spree, and they’ll roll their eyes or shake their heads or something like that, because they’ll read the same damn article and they’ll ask the same damn question, only their answer will be different. Their conclusion will be, of course it was relevant. Of course it was related. Some people will be aware that they’ve reached that conclusion, and other people will do it subconsciously. The result will be the same, though.

They’ll read about the report from a professional that said Adam was more likely to become a victim, and they’ll laugh. They’ll laugh even though it’s true. Of course, statistics don’t change the fact that he actually became a victimizer, but statistically, overall, people like him and people like me are at such high risk of becoming victims of violence and abuse. That’s true across the board for disabled people, no matter whether we’re talking about autism or mental illness. You don’t have to read academic studies to know that (though the studies do exist) because if you live in a society where one way of existing is normal and everything else is treated as less than, anyone who falls into that “everything else” category is going to be more vulnerable. That’s the way systems of power work.

Solomon may have intended to try to humanize both Peter and Adam in his article. He probably intended to do the same thing with the many different types of people he wrote about in Far From The Tree. But his intentions don’t change the reality of his writing, which, for me, is completely devastating and completely dehumanizing. And not just for autistics but for people with mental illness too. Autistics got a half-hearted disclaimer that autism isn’t related to violence. People with mental illness got thrown under the bus.

And the best phrase I can think of to describe how he talks in so much detail about Adam’s sensory aversions to sounds and textures is “morbid fascination.” In the course of my activism, I’ve met so many people, most but not all autistic, who could also fit a lot of these descriptions perfectly too.


One of my favorite hobbies is text-based roleplaying, which is basically like writing stories but with other people. Some people treat it more like a competitive game, and other people like to treat it more like a big group writing project better. The roleplays that interest me the most are the ones that explore the same topics that I’m interested in outside roleplay: state violence, terrorism, torture, abuse, human rights violations, rape and other sexual violence, and mass murder.

I’m writing my seventh novel right now. Much of the novel focuses on war crimes and genocide along ethnic and religious lines.

If you didn’t know me, if you read Andrew Solomon’s article and the hundreds of others like it, if you didn’t understand that it’s totally possible to be fascinated and obsessed with individual and systemic violence and yet not be violent personally, then you might wonder too if I’m going to be the next Adam Lanza or Anders Behring Breivik or Seung-Hui Cho or James Holmes.

When I was in tenth grade, I was called into an administrator’s office and accused of planning a school shooting. When I told him that of course I wasn’t planning a school shooting, he pointed out that I seemed to be obsessed with weapons and violence, and then he asked me if I was sure I’d never thought about actually hurting someone.

When I was in twelfth grade, my mom told me that there were people in the church who thought I was planning to join Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group.

These things are real, and they prove to me that my fears – both for myself and other people – aren’t unfounded.



Image description: Me wearing a white t-shirt, standing in a room with windows facing a hallway with elevators and various college flyers. I'm looking down and holding a sign handwritten in purple ink that says, "I'm not afraid to say I'm autistic." Photo by Shain Neumeier in December 2012.


I don’t claim to understand everyone’s motives. If I did, there wouldn’t be any more obsessive quests for answers after each and every act of mass violence I’ve ever learned about since September 11.

But I can say with certainty that it’s not mental illness or autism or an interest in violence or being bullied or social awkwardness or violent roleplaying or violent video games or violent creative writing that lead to mass murder. Those aren’t warning signs. They shouldn’t be treated as warning signs.

There’s so much ableism and ageism wrapped up in the assumption that these things are somehow predictors of future violence. Ironically, those same assumptions are used to justify real violence against people like me, and often by the people who in theory are supposed to protect us.


Does Peter Lanza have a right to his opinions, thoughts, and emotions? Of course he does. I’m the last person to say that his experiences and emotions are not valid.

But that doesn’t make them any less hurtful. It doesn’t make Andrew Solomon’s article any less painful.

The two most painful things in that article for me to read were when Solomon asked Peter what the family did about a funeral for Adam, and Peter said that no one would ever know, and then when Peter said that he wishes Adam had never been born.

Maybe the family did host a funeral for Adam. Maybe they didn’t. I wasn’t there during the interview, so I don’t know how Peter said that comment, but at least in writing, it came across as so cold and so callous, and I – I couldn’t form words.

And as to the second comment – we have no way of knowing when someone is born if that person is going to be a wonderful amazing human being who helps many people or if that person is going to turn into a horrible person who does horrible things to other people. It’s so easy to say after the fact that you wish someone hadn’t been born.

But when the parent of a young man who obviously did have many disabilities says that, even though his son was a mass murderer who killed twenty children, just how close in time this article was published to the March 1 vigils in memory of hundreds of disabled people (plenty of them autistic) murdered by their parents only gives this statement a chilling underline.



Image description: Me wearing a dark blue winter coat, a beige suit jacket, and an ochre shirt, with a blue lanyard and beige gloves, facing slightly away from the camera while speaking. I'm standing in front of a large poster that says "Mourn for the Dead ...And Fight Like Hell" for the Living followed by a list of victims' names, ages at death, and manner of murder. Photo by Kory Otto-Jacobs at DC Day of Mourning Vigil in Farragut Square on Friday 1 March 2013 as part of the National Day of Mourning for disabled people murdered by caregivers and family members.


In the interview, Peter Lanza talked quite a bit about how Adam never came to terms with the Asperger’s/autistic diagnosis.

There’s no way to know, but I can’t help but wonder whether being able to accept being autistic and be around other affirming autistic people might have changed the course of events.


For all the constant media pattern of assuming that someone who kills a lot of people must be autistic or mentally ill, two of Adam Lanza’s victims, Josephine “Joey” Gay and Dylan Hockley, were autistic too.

In the rush to railroad autistic people, the media often conveniently forgets that fact.


Both Andrew Solomon and Peter Lanza kept emphasizing that maybe if Adam had received treatment, this might not have happened. I can’t underscore enough how damaging this is for so many people.

First of all, Representative Tim Murphy’s bill in Congress right now, if passed, will severely cut funding for community-based programs supporting people with mental illnesses as well as the advocacy agencies that exist to protect people’s rights.

This bill comes after his hearing almost an entire year ago when witness after witness kept testifying to his committee about how horrible and dangerous people with mental illnesses are, and only one brave witness dared say something different.

Secondly, the sad and extremely violent reality is that the vast majority of therapy and program options for people with mental illness are coercive, demeaning, and paternalistic.

Thirdly, this article reinforces the social presumption that the default option for mental illness is and should be psychiatric treatment. And while I absolutely support the right of anyone who wants psychiatric treatment of any kind to access that treatment on their own terms, the reality is that not everyone wants to go that route and that’s okay.

Fourthly, there is the reality that this article, written by a famous journalist in a well-known publication, will be treated as an authority, and that the statements in it can and will lead to even more stigma and less voluntary options for people who do seek out psychiatric treatment.

These are realities and consequences that profoundly disturb me.


I can tell you why I am obsessed with violence.

It is because I am also completely and absolutely committed to the ideal of justice.

There was a long time after September 11 when I dreamed about a career in counterterrorism, with the idea that I could help stop future attacks.

The broad theme of my work for the past five years has been addressing violence against disabled people, especially disabled people made even more vulnerable because they also happen to be queer, trans, poor, immigrants, or people of color. Violence against us happens all the time, both by other people in the community and by government forces.

My work is emotionally exhausting.

Every so often, I receive an email out of nowhere from someone asking for help because they or their kid are in an abusive situation at school or work.

Writing and roleplaying about individual and systemic violence, and how it impacts everyone in the community, helps me process my emotions. In fact, it’s the only thing that actually works for me. It’s not that I take sadistic pleasure out of writing about violent things or that I secretly wish I could do violent things to people I’ve met.

It’s part of the same obsession with understanding why and how and what next. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that I understand the desperate search for answers in the wake of violence. That desperate search has been the narrative for much of my conscious life.



Image description: Shain Neumeier, white person with short blond hair and glasses, and I standing on a traffic island in the middle of a multi-lane highway on an overcast day. We're holding hand-drawn and colored signs to protest the abusive Judge Rotenberg Center, which uses painful electric shock as punishment/behavioral modification for disabled residents. Shain's sign says "Stop the Shocks" with lightning bolts cutting through the o's, and I'm holding two signs, one that says "People not Experiments" and the other that says "Shocked for... hugging staff, swearing, nagging, getting out of seat, taking off coat, screaming, tensing up, closing eyes, raising hand. Ban the GED [electric shock device]." Photo by Taylor C. Hall, January 2013.


In the end, I’ve started asking different questions. It’s less often, “Why did this mass tragedy happen?” and more often, “Why do people insist that the only people capable of committing such horrible crimes must be an Other?” and “Why do we treat specific instances of mass tragedies as both more important and more horrible than the continuous and brutal violence against marginalized people?”

I don’t mean to belittle the real victimhood of people killed by mass murderers or the pain for their living loved ones. I don’t mean to belittle the internal struggle that must happen for anyone who finds out someone they loved or knew well was responsible for those killings either.

But the questions are worth asking because they, too, carry life or death consequences. They carry consequences for my life and my experiences, and they carry consequences for those of so many of my friends and colleagues too.  

I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they have to worry about whether their teachers or bosses will peg them as the next mass shooters if they just happen to be loners, socially awkward, interested in violent games, autistic, or mentally ill. If my children are autistic or mentally ill or both, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where their humanity is questioned every single day, or where police brutality based on their disability status could end their lives.

The fact that much of the response to a horrific act of violence has been to encourage more violence is not merely astounding, but extremely sad.

The worst part of all of this is knowing that no matter what I say or do or write here, the people who have power in media and politics will carry on with their dehumanizing campaign, and I – we – don’t stand a chance when these things are simply accepted as true and normal and how things are.

If you’re reading this essay, all I can ask is that you consider an alternative narrative. Instead of trying to play the blame game for violence – autistics one day, people with mental illness the next, every young Black man the week after that – can we start to focus on healing within ourselves and our communities? Can we cope with our trauma in less hurtful ways?



39 comments:

  1. Thank you for this incredibly insightful analysis. I haven't read the New Yorker piece your refer to in your article yet, but reading your piece reminded me of the interview Marilyn Manson gave to Rolling Stone after the Columbine Massacre, especially the part where he said "In my work I examine the America we live in, and I've always tried to show people that the devil we blame our atrocities on is really just each one of us". Most mainstream analyses of school shootings fail to acknowledge the ways in which the schools themselves--and their leaders, teachers etc.--are deeply implicated in the shootings by virtue of their failure to protect or affirm students who are constructed as Other in these environments, and their willingness to turn a blind eye when such students are victimised and humiliated by those students at the top of the social hierarchy. These mainstream accounts, which try to paint school shooters as psychopathological deviants or attribute their actions to mental illness fail to recognize the actions of the perpetrators of school shootings as political acts which speak to these environments as toxic, and as Othering. Larkin's 'Comprehending Columbine' gives some very useful insights into the toxicity of educational environments and the role of school culture in enabling such atrocities to take place.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Audrey. I'll definitely try to find "Comprehending Columbine," because it seems like would be a useful read.

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  2. i am so thankful for your insights. i appreciate you sharing this!

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  3. Why is the media fixated on mass murder? Because the audience is interested -- and because it's a horror five standard deviations from the mean. It's kind of like how the media fixated on shark attacks -- despite maybe 4 deaths on the *planet* are killed by sharks per year (vs 4 people per *hour* killed in car accidents in the US).

    Did Adam Lanza's autism contribute to his actions? Yes -- as did his whiteness, maleness, upper middle class-ness, etc. every single person's *life* is a contributing factor to their *actions*.

    (With respect to the New Yorker article both Peter Lanza and Andrew Solomon *said* the autism wasn't a factor -- clearly, explicitly. What else could Solomon have done so as not to convey a non-existent link between autism and murder??).

    As a person with a mental illness severe enough to have warranted a psychiatrist, medication and the odd in-patient stay on a psych ward, I can authoritatively say that *mental illness* generally doesn't cause violence -- though *untreated* mental illness sometimes does. The mentally ill cannot be *forced* to accept psychiatric treatment unless they pose an *imminent* threat to themselves or others. Not sure if you're aware but there aren't anywhere near enough psychiatrists/psych hospitals for the number of acutely mentally ill individuals who desperately need them -- just google Creigh Deeds and Gus Deeds for proof of this!

    Was Adam Lanza mentally ill? Nobody knows. Is the media coverage demonizing Adam Lanza for his autism and/or mental illness? Hardly. The mental health system didn't fail here -- Adam Lanza had insurance and his parents were the rare family that could easily afford to pay the $6k/month residential treatment fees out of pocket. Adam refused any and all meds and treatment.

    It's human instinct to want to know *why* the unfathomable happened -- and in this case, like so many others, there are no answers. The take-home message is that it's probably not a good idea to store your arsenal of legally at home if you are very concerned about your son's mental health. Or possibly that it's a bad idea to let your adult son live at home rent free despite having no job/school, give him a car and enough cash for 10 hrs/day video games and give him unfettered access to the arsenal of weapons if you're concerned about your child's mental health.

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    1. 'Did Adam Lanza's autism contribute to his actions? Yes'

      No.

      'Is the media coverage demonizing Adam Lanza for his autism and/or mental illness? Hardly.'

      Yes. Obviously.

      'it's probably not a good idea to store your arsenal of legally at home if you are very concerned about your son's mental health.'

      Did you actually read the article? At all? Because it doesn't sound like you did.

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  4. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11182747

    Challenge the media to meet a real burden of proof. Adam Lanza was never autistic, and until I see real proof that this is not a propaganda diagnosis, that is what I will continue to say to people. The media and curebies diagnosed Lanza, not a credible specialist.

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    1. Adam Lanza's father said he had a diagnosis of autism. The police report said that there was documentation saying he had a diagnosis of autism.

      I'm kind of at a loss of why folks seem to think he wasn't autistic on paper.

      (Was he misdiagnosed? Nobody knows).

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  5. Thank you so much for writing this. This may not mean much, but today I was feeling quite stressed by the fact I was on the spectrum. I feel quite a bit better after reading this, especially as so many of the things you've described happened with me. Thank you for giving a voice to those who can not.

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  6. I admit I've never really questioned the sensationalist news stories beyond wishing their authors would 1) quit jumping at the chance to blame autism whenever an autistic person does something like this, and 2) stop feeding the public's rubbernecking attitude toward tragedy (though I haven't read the Solomon article, so I don't know whether he's doing the latter). But reading this, something occurred to me.

    I'm autistic, and much like you, I've always been drawn to stories involving torture, death, and all the horrible things people can do to one another. (And not because I'm a violent person. On the contrary, I'm a committed pacifist.) I also happen to have a strong interest in Western mysticism and magical systems.

    This makes me an autistic person obsessed with violence and the occult.

    ...I'm a sensationalist news story waiting to happen.

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    1. I've also been a committed pacifist for a long time (as part of my anti-violence activism), and that has no doubt contributed greatly to the enormous amount of hurt and pain I have felt every time in my life that someone has suggested about me that I'm a violent person or going to become a violent person. It's actually happened more times than I discussed in this essay, but there simply wasn't room to explain each situation. I'm sure my long-standing interest in learning about and understanding terrorism hasn't helped the assumptions either.

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  7. Thank you for sticking with and continuing to speak out about this difficult issue, Lydia. It's difficult for you emotionally, I'm sure, but also difficult for people to be able to think about productively.

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  8. I'm a mom of an elementary school aged boy. After Sandy Hook, our child's school started taking a zero tolerance policy with his autism related behaviors. it wasn't just us though - every sped attorney, child psychologist and special ed advocate I spoke to was seeing the same thing: kids arrested for having meltdowns, sent to emergency psych wards, expelled, restraining orders, you name it. Thank you Lydia for speaking up. I have to ask the question though: do you feel you would have been treated differently by school administration if you were male? Or perhaps were they more lenient towards you because you were female

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    1. What, exactly, is a "zero-tolerance" for autistic behaviors?

      I'm having a hard time seeing how flapping, having a meltdown (so long as they are not hitting/hurting others) would result in a spectrum kid getting expelled from school.

      The restraining order thing -- well, suggests that the spectrum kid in question is unwilling/unable to stop contacting a classmate who has politely told them to stop. In this sort of case, expulsion may well be warranted, as the classmate entitled to go about his/her day without being harassed by the spectrum kid. This is the kind of behavior that's critical to nip in the bud early, as there are serious consequences to carrying on like that as an adult:

      http://josephmjason.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/petition-daniel-s-jason-should-get-treatment-instead-of-incarceration-the-criminalization-of-asperger-syndrome-must-end/

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    2. Sadly, this makes the assumption that they have been politely told to stop. As often as not, the oddball kid is expected to know that engaging in conversation with non-oddballs is *always* Inappropriate, *especially* if, as is the case for most autistics, they are incapable of reading Human nonverbal communication.

      Unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of thing that gets a kid marginalised, which just lowers the opportunities for learning about interaction with the Humans in their own environment, and that has consequences.

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    3. I don't know what the laws are in your state -- but in mine, telling a person to stop contacting you in writing (email or registered letter) and evidence that they've continued to contact you anyways are prerequisites for getting a restraining order.

      There's a huge difference between harassment that requires an RO and an oddball kid not quite getting that, no, Bobby doesn't want to hang out with them after school. Engaging in ten unwanted conversations won't get you a restraining order --- but forty probably will.

      It's also helpful to keep in mind that nobody is *required* to like a particular oddball of a kid -- they are, however, required to be *polite* to him/her (and everybody else on this planet). Politeness is what keeps the world from descending into anarchy (and is the bare minimum required by the social contract). Parents of oddball kids have a tendency to forget this.

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    4. The laws are similar here, but that's not the kind of situation I'm thinking about.

      The kind of situation I'm thinking about is where Johnny talks to Bobby. Bobby doesn't like talking to the weirdo, and mocks Johnny to his friends, rapidly turning to outright bullying. Being politely told to stop is not on the agenda. Johnny tries harder to make friends, until it goes to the teacher. The teacher tells Johnny not to talk to Bobby. Johnny, hurt and confused, tries to make friends with Andy, perhaps doubling his efforts. The situation repeats until Johnny is lucky enough to connect with the other oddballs in the corner of the playground, Johnny takes the hint that nobody wants to talk to him* or Johnny gets suspended.

      It's a very short step from that to a kid deciding everyone hates him, with the consequence that he becomes a recluse, increasingly hating the world, which has severe consequences in adulthood. Then you start having violent fantasies. In my case, I never acted them out, and almost certainly never will. They are fantasies, but I know acting on them is wrong.

      In my experience, what actually happens is that "politeness" extends as far as "Hi, How are you?" "Fine. Please can I have a cheese and onion pasty?" "Thank you. Have a nice day."

      That is social isolation. Depression and social anxiety follow, and both of these are endemic among Aspies.

      Do autism, mental illness etc cause people to be violent? Certainly not. The evidence says otherwise.

      Is it possible that a tiny minority of those so socially marginalised will crack in consequence? That is a different question entirely.

      The answer to that is not to keep guns away from those people (although keeping guns away from everyone can't be a bad idea - I come from a country where it's next to impossible for a private citizen to get a firearms license, and our "democracy" functions no worse than that in the US) or to lock up oddballs, or to seek eugenic final solutions, a la Autism $peaks.

      The answer, to paraphrase Larry Niven, is to accept that there exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently.

      In my experience, few Neurotypicals get that (although there may be sampling error). Many Autistics do, because we live with it every day.


      *What happened in my childhood, sans diagnosis.

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    5. PS: I am not the same Anonymous as the Anonymous who is the mother of the elementary school child. I wrote both the Anonymous replies to Jenny.

      Seems we are legion after all. ;)

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    6. In response to the question asked by the first anonymous (the mother):

      I may have been treated differently if I were perceived as male. I'm sure that if I had been a black young man in particular, the school might have been more likely to immediately involve the police because of the combined criminalization of having autistic characteristics and being black, and the presumption of patriarchal society that masculine people are naturally more violent and aggressive than feminine people. Since I'm neither MAAB nor generally perceived as male/masculine/a man, I guess we'll never know.

      I do know another autistic person in a similar situation (I think this person identifies as a woman) who was accused of planting a bomb at the school. The whole school went into lockdown for several hours and the police were called. The autistic person was then interrogated. It was an untrue accusation in that case as well.

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    7. The minimum requirements for civil behavior do indeed end at "thanks for passing me the cheese and onion pastry".

      Bullying is awful and illegal and schools should be doing more to prevent it -- better supervision of hallways, playground at recess, etc.

      But you *cannot* make somebody *like* a classmate -- or a colleague (once you're a grownup). You just can't. So you're left with the requirement to be civil everybody.

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  9. As a trainer of mental health peer specialists in Kansas, and as a peer specialist myself, I would like to thank you for this insightful and spot-on essay.

    The failure (perhaps from fear?) of the news media to talk to people who have lived these experiences before they go around using inaccurate and stigmatizing labels, assumptions, and descriptions needs to be commented on at every step. Most news outlets have ombudspeople and editors who need to hear from us often and energetically.

    One of the things I got from Solomon's piece (and it was very hard for me to read as well) were all of the missed opportunities for somebody to just ask Adam what had happened to him and to listen to him, without judgment, without "treatment" without an agenda, without trying to "fix" him. We may have learned enough to discover how to leverage his strengths and foster his resiliency into helping him create the life he wanted, not the life everyone seemed to want for him.

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  10. Thank you so much for this piece.

    I work in promoting and training mental health peer support workers, and am a Certified Peer Specialist myself, and wish that the news media would consult folks with lived experiences of mental health diagnoses prior to filling their stories full of stigmatizing and dehumanizing assumptions and stereotypes.

    What Solomon's piece brought home to me were all of the missed opportunities for someone to ask Adam Lanza what happened in his life, for someone to listen without judgment, without an agenda, without trying to "fix" him. How could that have changed the way that he thought--and the way he thought about himself? How could his strengths have been leveraged and his resiliency fostered in a way that would have led to growth and independence instead of tragedy and dissolution?

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    1. Absolutely -- there's a quote from Eddie Cantor that I've seen floating around in the past that applies pretty well here. He said, "When I see the Ten Most Wanted List, I always have this thought: If we'd made them feel wanted earlier, they wouldn't be wanted now." Obviously, there are many, many people who have experienced trauma like parental abandonment, neglect, abuse, and other forms of violence, or the impact of oppressions in their own lives, and who do not end up becoming violent toward other people. That's a huge part of why it's so important to acknowledge that, yes, while of course autistic people, people with mental illnesses, Black people, Muslims, queer people, abuse survivors, etc. can and do commit violent crimes, there are also just as many neurotypical people, white people, Christians, heterosexual people, people who've never experienced abuse, etc. who also commit violent crimes.

      But at the same time, while it in no way whatsoever justifies or lessens the heinous nature of mass murder, I agree that it is also important to wonder how the presence of a loving, affirming family (chosen or otherwise) and society at large could have impacted someone who might not have had access to that kind of support system.

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  11. I'm really fed up with the amount of negative media representation that people with disabilities, disorders, and mental illnesses have been getting here in the US. By searching the internet, I've found that the situation in the PRC is much different though. On the English version of the website for the state press agency of the PRC (Xinhua) there are 17 articles that mention Adam Lanza, and not one of those articles mentions that he had Asperger's. Also, on the English version of the website for the official news channel of the PRC (CCTV) there are 23 articles that mention Adam Lanza, and only one of those articles mentions that he had Asperger's. In contrast, there are tens of articles that mention that Adam Lanza had Asperger's on pretty much every major American news website.

    How does it make you feel that the PRC is trying to protect people like us, while the US is exploiting us? Do you agree with me that there should be more censorship in the American media in order to protect the rights of minorities? Should we have a right not to be systematically discriminated against, that supersedes the media's right to say whatever they want? I definitely think so. If they keep trashing the social conditions for people like me here in the US, I might just have to move to China, so I don't to live in fear of the institutions that are meant to protect me. Greatest country on earth, huh, what a joke. This country is so hypocritical.

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  12. Jenny,
    There are mental illnesses that can cause violence. for instance, PTSD. Therapy for PTSD takes a long time to be effective. Medications can help, but not always to the degree desired. Unfortunately, you are correct that there are not enough Psychiatrists and psych facilities for those in need of treatment. We can thank de-institutionalization for the current mess. While something needed to be done about all of the abuses, this was not carried out in the most humane ways. Seems as though the pendulum is beginning to swing in the other direction.

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    1. 'We can thank de-institutionalization for the current mess.'

      Actually, we can thank stigma, widespread ignorance, socially ingrained ableism and income inequality for the current 'mess'.

      But thanks for making this all about locking away those inconvenient crazy people.

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    2. No. No no no no no.

      1) I have PTSD. When I've been triggered and acted aggressively, which has happened a few times, it has not been planned. It is completely incomparable to a planned, deliberate mass murder of innocent people. It's all the difference between kicking out your leg when a doctor does a reflex test on you and kicking out your leg with the intent to kick someone in the groin. Do NOT compare reactions that come out of being overwhelmed, terrified and triggered with premeditated acts of violence.

      2) Lack of coercive institutional treatment is not the problem. Lack of (meaningful access to) effective voluntary treatment free of stigma, including a situation where someone, in order to get treatment on short notice, must be willing to potentially give up their autonomy in exchange for needed supports and services, is.

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  13. Thanks for this post, Lydia. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was attacked on campus and ended up with dozens of stitches in my face and head, and a broken nose. When I returned home from the hospital I made lists of the homes in the neighborhood where I knew I could steal guns and ammo, who I was going to kill, where I would probably find them, and the best route to take among the locations I had to look so as not to be caught before completing the mission.

    I didn't do it. I also didn't I speak or write about it for the next 35 years until after Sandy Hook when I read the comments on the Internet about Lanza's alleged autism. I have autism but I'm not Adam Lanza. Neither I nor autism should not be judged by his actions. Did my autism play a role leading to my making lists of people to kill? The only possible way to answer "yes" is to say that it contributed to my victimization, which in turn contributed to my making the lists.

    But a deeper analysis would probably conclude that the autism played a role in my abandoning that plan. For my attacker and his friends, it was about exerting power over me. Going through with my plan would require my granting that power over me, even after their deaths, and for the rest of my life if I survived. My autism was a factor in my ability to recognize this at 15 years old. It factored into my decision that retaining my sovereignty and humanity are more important to me than revenge.

    Lanza and I came to the same crossroads but took different paths. Both of us were accompanied by our autism. If it played a causal role in his choice, so too did it play a causal role in mine. He chose violence, I chose compassion. Which of us is the outlier? Society rises up in anger over mass shootings and demands action, but permits low levels of chronic and persistent violence against vulnerable populations and at far greater scale. It isn't that society prohibits murder, but rather it prohibits murders of "Us" and especially when those murders happen all at once. Between the two of us, Lanza isn't the outlier. The guy promoting compassionate social change is. And after Sandy Hook, I'm among the population society wants to regulate to prevent future occurrences. That's just twisted.

    Your writing about institutionalized physical, economic and emotional violence toward our more vulnerable fellow humans resonates deeply for me. This is how we become aware and begin to address it. I thank you for that.

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  14. I am a mild Autistic/Aspie in college. People have been very open and understanding when I disclose to them, (which I do readily) and I am grateful for the understanding.

    However, part of me fears that one day, Autism will become a condition that is subject derogatory terms.

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  15. My husband sent me this article because he knows I am interested in psychology. But what he didn't realize is how deeply your piece would speak to me. I too have always felt great empathy for everyone - including those who commit terrible and heinous crimes. I had only seen a small quote from Peter Lanza before I was sent your article but decided to read the New Yorker piece first to better understand the response you had written. I too was devastated by the idea of a father saying such terrible things about his son.

    Should we celebrate what Adam Lanza did? No. No we should not. But can we not celebrate his life at all? Is he to only be defined as his worst moment? What if the same were true of any of us? Wouldn't we feel the unfairness of it? To say that he wised his son was never born, honestly eliminated a lot of the sympathy I felt for Peter Lanza. How dare he? How dare he erase all the good his child brought to his and others life. How dare he try and appease the anger and rage and hurt of the victims and their families by castigating his son. Peter Lanza is far from a healthy place right now but I'm not sure he knows it. While I understand the long and painful journey he is on, most people don't give public interviews about their feelings mid-process.

    Finally, I wanted to just mention the one part of your piece I had a problem with, "Thirdly, this article reinforces the social presumption that the default option for mental illness is and should be psychiatric treatment. And while I absolutely support the right of anyone who wants psychiatric treatment of any kind to access that treatment on their own terms, the reality is that not everyone wants to go that route and that’s okay. "

    I saw in some of your pictures your protesting the inappropriate psychological treatments an institution was prescribing (electrical shocks). While it is important as hell we continue to talk openly and honestly about what is and is not healthy or appropriate mental health care, I can not agree that it is ok to not receive treatment. Anymore than I would agree with a Tuberculosis patient refusing treatment. Because like TB. untreated mental illness DOES affect more than just the person suffering from it.

    While we should be talking more about how those suffering from mental illness or psychological distress or emotional disorders should be accepted and loved as anyone should be, I can't go as far as to say refusing treatment is totally fine. Because it isn't. And if more of us who suffer talk about the hard work of treatment, the extensive cost and time and energy we must devote to trying to be healthy, like anyone who diets or exercises, then psychological treatment wouldn't have the stigma it does. It's not ok that we have institutions that continue to purport the use of improper and dangerous treatments, you'll never convince me talk therapy is dangerous or bad and that anyone with mental health issues shouldn't seek out talk therapy. There are safe and effective mental health practices. It shouldn't be ok with any of us that sick people refuse help. That's just my opinion.

    Thank you so much for sharing openly and honestly your thoughts and feelings on this subject. I wish there was a place where more of us could talk about this stuff - where we could educate the public at large about mental illness, the fact that almost everyone on earth suffer from emotional and mental health issues at one point in their lives and that the stigma against talking about it, needs to go away already. I hope you're proud like me to be open and honest about who you are and why its ok. You're beautiful.

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    1. I think you need to be cautious what you are asking for here. Stripping the right to refuse "treatment" can lead to some very bad places. I agree that talking therapy is mostly safe and can be effective.

      That said, I am dealing with a shrink who thinks I'm resistant to talking therapy because I'm too introspective - which sounds very like code for thinking too much.

      She now wants me to try more psychopharmaceuticals.

      I'm doubtful of the efficacy of these drugs, given that the entire field has been plagued by small sample sizes, high dropout rates, flat out bad theory (journal.pmed.0020392), preferential publication of positive results, dodgy marketing and all kinds of other issues, not to mention long lists of sometimes dangerous side-effects.

      If you are going to insist that anyone in psychological distress must receive treatment you are going down the road of enforced confinement and enforced use of drugs of often doubtful efficacy.

      I'll say this again, and I will keep saying it until it sinks in: the solution to much mental distress lies in Humans acting like the decent, compassionate, empathic, civilised beings the claim to be. If they do not, I will call them out for lying.

      On the other hand, I had enough with human empathy and compassion a long time ago. The use of these words is often no more than Newspeak.

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    2. I’m not sure I agree with you on mental illness. I absolutely agree that there should be more openness in society about mental illness and its treatment; it shouldn’t be hidden away like a shameful secret. And I agree with you on the good of society – someone whose mental illness makes him/her a genuine threat could be seen as equivalent to someone with a highly contagious and dangerous physical disease who needs to be quarantined whether against his/her wishes or not. But there is such a huge stigma against mental illness that a lot of people are seen as dangerous when they really aren’t. That’s a huge issue, and one I’m not qualified to address.

      Setting that aside, though, what about someone like me? I have anxiety (diagnosed with OCD and GAD) and what is probably either PTSD or closely related. For various reasons, I would rather live with the issues themselves than the potential side effects of medication. My experiences with talk therapy have ranged from unhelpful to actively bad, and I have no desire to try it again. I’ve had much more success, and made much more progress, working with my mind on my own. It’s true that this won’t be the best choice for everyone, but should I not be able to make this choice for myself?

      A more ambiguous case is the relative of mine who chose to stop taking medication for his bipolar disorder, and subsequently lost his apartment and became homeless. He’s on medication again now, and has a place to live, but for several years he indicated that he was happy and content living the way he was and that he didn’t want to be helped. Should he have been able to make that choice? What if the only other option was medicating him against his will – would that have been a better option?

      My inclination is to say that yes, as in the case of physical illness, it should be acceptable to choose not to treat mental illness. (And, in fact, it should be more acceptable than it currently is to choose not to treat physical illness.) It will be much harder to make a truly informed choice, however, until there is a lot less stigma against mental illness than there is now.

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    3. 'It shouldn't be ok with any of us that sick people refuse help.'

      It is not actually your place to tell sick people what to do and what not to do.

      'Because like TB. untreated mental illness DOES affect more than just the person suffering from it'

      Thanks for reducing my psychological disability to an untreated disease. Thanks for making it clear that you prioritize the effect my condition has on people around me over my rights and comfort. Thanks for contaminating a disabled advocate's blog with your ableist bullshit. It's so kind of you.

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  16. Ms Brown, thank you for this, and for everything else that you do.

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  17. beautiful article - i could not agree more with so much of what you say here. I work with people who commit violent acts and have been found not guilty because of being mentally ill. I know the people i work with as people and i love them as i truly see no point in judging anyone...least of all people who have been subject to terrible trauma and abuse and are' as much victims as they are offenders. Keep up the wonderful writing.....and beleive you will make a difference...because you will !!!

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  18. wonderful article....keep writing you make a difference !!!!

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  19. I'm allistic, but suffer from chronic psychosis (either schizoaffective or bipolar 1, my doctors aren't quite sure which), OCD, and PTSD. I heard voices, following a traumatic house fire, that told me to kill people and hurt people (I heard voices before then, but never violent ones). It was unbearable, having somebody yelling at you "BASH THEIR SKULL IN, KILL THE WEAK, PROVE YOUR WORTH" all day. I hated myself because of my voices. So I went to see a therapist. Therapy was awkward, but went well, but slow. So I decided to add an antipsychotic, and after finding the right pill, all of the voices, good and bad, went away. But then came James Holmes, followed by Sandy Hook. I really identified with Holmes because at the time, my diagnosis was "paranoid schizophrenia", I was a neuroscience student, and I love comic books. So I was scared that I'd end up like him. So when Sandy Hook happened, and it triggered my OCD, I started to have intrusive thoughts telling me each step I'd need to complete in order to successfully shoot up a supermarket, and I'd obsess over shooting up this supermarket, and have compulsions to hurt people whenever I was in this supermarket, I couldn't stand it anymore. So I told my parents and therapist and they admitted me to my local DBT inpatient hospital. And it was amazing.
    I did individual therapy, group therapy, group meditation, art therapy, roleplay therapy, all that stuff. It changed my life. My meds were changed yet again, and I learned that having violent thoughts is normal, and that everyone, even NT's, has intrusive thoughts at times. And I learned to control and cope with the intrusions. I learned meditative techniques. It was amazing.
    So while I may bring on the stereotype of "psycho with crazy violent thoughts", I like to think of myself as breaking the stereotype because I realized I had a problem and did something about it. As many people with mental illnesses do. We are perfectly capable of living moral, ethical lives, thank you very much. And I'm living proof of that.

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  20. Excellent analysis, I am so sick of the sensationalism. It would be nice if autistic people could just pursue their own interests and live their lives on our own terms with out constantly worrying that people will dismiss what we do, or pathologize it based on our autism. Sometimes our interests and behaviors that are noticed as unusual are in part related to our autism but that doesn't make them bad by itself!
    I had a friend (also on the spectrum) in high school who enjoyed drawing guns and military equipment, sometimes during class and writing stories that involved violence. He occasionally lost his temper and a couple of times pushed people at school (generally after being bullied or over-stimulated) but in general was a very gentle sweet guy. At one point he was suspended after teachers found his drawings and got paranoid. He was falsely accused of threatening people and of being "obsessed with guns". Ridiculous. I can't remember if this was before or after Columbine.

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  21. Ms Brown you are a wonder! My 16 year old son is an Aspie and has been obsessed with violence and violent death, natural disasters and civic chaos since he was first able to articulate. From Barney to the Titanic he had no interest unless someone was dying a gruesome death. This was very disturbing at first until he was later able to tell us why...nit the death, not the violence but the chaos they engender in the environment is the appeal...chaos that he is not part of, chaos that does not affect him directly, chaos that he can - and this is important - control! This is in stark contrast to his daily reality where control lies with teachers, therapists and us his parents.
    You have been able to add to my understanding and I thank you for that and all the work you do in assisting to break the Otherness cycle and creating some understanding of the complex reasons for each Aspie's particular focus.

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  22. Lydia (blog author) said: Both Peter Lanza and Andrew Solomon said outright that autism shouldn’t be treated as if it’s related to Adam’s killing spree.
    That may be because Adam Lanza wasn't actually Autistic. He had a range of conditions that appeared to be Asperger's when taken together, but he had several key aspects of Autism missing. For example, while neighbours described him as 'odd', he had no trouble in relating to other people when he chose to, and he never stimmed or thought out loud as many Autistic individuals are wont to do.

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