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The shooter at Sandy Hook is being reported as having had Asperger's Syndrome - an autistic spectrum disorder that has only had a relatively small amount of cultural exposure, so if it turns out to be correct, this would be how most of America (and the world) is introduced to it: As a dangerous mental illness associated with psychotic acts of violence - which is about as far from the truth as one could possibly get.  Speaking as someone who has Asperger's, this could add an additional (though by no means equivalent) layer of tragedy on top of an already fathomless horror if this monstrous act came to be how people with this disability are defined in the popular imagination.  The discussion should rightly focus mainly on gun control, but I'm disturbed by the tenor of some of the media statements I've seen when the subject turns to mental health, and would hope it's not a sign of a potentially damaging misconception being created.

Obviously the shooter was insane - there's no other meaningful way to define the mental state of someone who murders people at random, let alone little kids.  It's not possible to know what kind of chaos or hatred was swirling around in that mind that produced these actions, but one thing is 100% certain for me: It had nothing whatsoever to do with having Asperger's, if indeed it is the case that he had that condition.  Maybe the isolation and difficulty communicating deprived him of social supports that help other people cope with life, but I can't comprehend an autistic-spectrum disability being the actual cause of such actions.  

For me personally, I have always sensed the inherent wrongness of violence precisely because of the unconventional way my mind works - I've sometimes felt guilty about swatting flies and felt like I could empathize with them; I can empathize with almost anyone or anything, and it's precisely because I'm largely denied the easy, almost subconscious social communication that connects most people.  So instead of having a strong bond with a few people while being cut off from everything else like most people are, I tend to feel more broadly connected to the world and have a sense of responsibility for how it develops despite just being an ordinary citizen with no special resources.  But I admit that's just me, and is not necessarily broadly applicable.

Asperger's does not determine the content of your character - it simply channels whoever you are into unconventional and sometimes highly enlightening pathways.  If it is indeed the case that the gunman had this disability, then he was a psychotic who happened to have Asperger's, not someone who was psychotic because of that condition.  I hope very much that this is not how people are first introduced to the disability, because there couldn't be a starker departure from its actual nature.  I'm not saying it makes people benevolent, because obviously having trouble forming social relationships is not the easiest beginning from which to build a happy and creative life.  

But there is nothing in that kind of mind - nothing - that promotes violence or hatred.  Quite the opposite: Even changes in how they do certain things, such as altering a routine too drastically and too quickly, can feel violent and frightening.  My case is relatively moderate, so I only feel that way when things are really thrown out of whack - and even then I hide the way it makes me afraid because, you know, I'm still a man and would be embarrassed for people around me to know that I'm viscerally afraid just because I'm (for instance) moving to a new apartment or something.  It's normal for people to be anxious in such situations, I'm sure, but I actually feel fear - just an undirected, existential horror at such a major change.  Fortunately there is a rebound effect, and the next day after being afraid like that I'm usually very happy and energized.  

Moreover, not all of the difficulty communicating is internal - part of Asperger's is often that our emotions don't naturally show on our faces, so people may think we act stilted, robotic, or unemotional even when we have very profound feelings.  This is perhaps the most frustrating part of the Asperger experience, because people think you're not feeling when you may be feeling even more strongly than they are.  And when you tell them how you feel, they may think you're being insincere because the emotions you describe in words aren't showing up on your face.  I'm not expressionless though - I do have natural expressions, and I'm accustomed to translating my emotions into expressions to the extent that it's almost automatic (but not quite).  

Still, in moments of intense emotion where I can't pay attention to showing how I feel, my face may be blank.  I can't be certain, but I think my face looks exactly the same when I'm ecstatic and when I'm terrified beyond words: I've actually had trouble in the latter case, because I've been in medical emergencies where I wasn't quite able to convey the urgency of the situation because I was basically quaking in fear inside myself while my face looked maybe slack or dull.  Ironically, this also means people give me a lot more credit for emotional strength than I actually deserve - in a moment of danger, I could be on the verge of pissing myself and the only thought running through my head is "Ohfuckholyshitshitshit" but other people might remember me as being calm and composed simply because I didn't react.  

When the situation actually calls for quick reaction, that's when the reality is more obvious, because "deer in headlights" is my natural response to sudden, unexpected anything: It takes a little time to process things, and that's why extreme violence is (I would guess) probably even rarer among people with Asperger's than people without it, even in rage.  Personally, I've never even broken something in anger - it takes too long for an emotion to trigger an action, and by the time it could happen, such impulses have dissipated too much.  It's the same thing as described in the last paragraph where I fail to react even when it would be prudent - whether the origin of the impulse is internal or external, my nervous system is like a huge bureaucracy that only lets through actions that either make sense or are at least innocuous.  

Anyway, hopefully this ramble was unnecessary and the media will put the focus where it belongs, on gun policy, rather than doing what they always do (sigh) and seizing on some irrelevancy to change the subject.  But if it does turn out the guy had Asperger's, and if the media does act on its baser instincts by emphasizing that rather than fostering a substantive gun policy debate, I would hope the above comments are enlightening and useful to someone.

Originally posted to Troubadour on Fri Dec 14, 2012 at 09:32 PM PST.

Also republished by KosAbility, Parenting on the Autism Spectrum, Barriers and Bridges, Mental Health Awareness, and KOSpectrum.

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