It was never about autism

Trigger warning: discussions of misogyny, rape, and murder

In high school I was once offered a ride home from an older classmate with a bit of a reputation. I didn’t know what to make of it–the fact that awkward little ol’ me registered on his radar at all totally floored me–I’m not good being put on the spot, and I didn’t like what I knew of him. I fell back on a line my parents, had they known, would have approved of: “I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to stay after for math help. I’m really not supposed to ride with other kids anyway. Thank you for the offer, though.” Later I found out through a mutual friend that he had been angry.

“I was just trying to do her a favor. What’s her problem?” Yes. A favor. A favor I hadn’t asked for, hadn’t wanted, and was now being socially punished for rejecting. I didn’t know I remembered that until I sat down to think about writing this. I do remember that I had no idea what autism was then. I do know he wasn’t autistic. He was just a guy.

I am still literally losing sleep, wondering if or when that transformation is supposed to happen. I know logically it will not happen. I know I have no interest in hurting anyone. I know the statistics on who actually commits this sort of violence. I know my history is not going to magically impart a knowledge of guns or explosives or a desire to hurt a large number of people. My anger and hurt do not manifest that way, they never have, and that is not going to change.

But now autism is the scapegoat du jour. Now every time someone does something violent, they are speculated to be autistic. And, just as some killers who were speculated to have crappy home lives actually did, just as the Columbine killers actually were bullied, there is a possibility that there will be a mass shooter who is Autistic.

But that does not make all of us dangerous. The immediate speculation makes my blood run cold.

It brings bile to my throat and a panic to my chest.

Have we learned nothing? Have the bullied children and abused children and medicated children and other scapegoats who have done no violence learned nothing? Passing the hot potato is a relief, but it is wrong.

Kassiane, “Plea from the Scariest Kid on the Block”

In college we knew the places to avoid–the fraternities that had been kicked off campus, “rapey” fraternities, as if not going to their house parties was insurance against assault. An acquaintance left school our first year after a half-hearted suicide attempt following an assault; after she had her stomach pumped we took her mom up to her room to read the statement to the university that the young woman had written. As far as I know nothing ever came of it. I don’t know where she is today. A neighbor of mine was berated and yelled at by a clinic doctor less than 24 hours after her rape after she told him, still in shock, that she didn’t know about pressing charges. Rather than try to understand how huge that would be on top of the monstrous assault on her body–her life paraded out for judgment and that moment relived in a he said/she said courtroom hell–he chose to dismiss her as a creature worthy of contempt, beneath him. That was never about autism either.

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.

Lydia Brown, Autistic Hoya. “I am Autistic and I am obsessed with violence”

A childhood friend of mine is on trial for murder, which the prosecution believes occurred during a rape. I met Seth in karate class when we were both kids; fifth grade, maybe? We knew each other through early high school and lost touch after I quit. Sitting proudly, I was there when he took his black belt test; we used to work together in sparring matches. He wasn’t a monster then, I don’t think, but I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure that the seeds of entitlement, dominance, and ownership over women had not yet been planted. His ex-girlfriend spoke of his past sexual violence. If one believes everything in the media and trial reports, his poisonous appetites escalated until it ended with him dumping a young woman’s body into the Piscataqua River.

For the record, I believe the prosecution. Also for the record, I don’t believe the DSM has a word or a condition for what he is. “Monster” is not a formally diagnosable condition; neither is “evil.” I believe he knew right from wrong and didn’t care. I believe that he came to believe that he was owed, by virtue of his own imaginings of his dominance and superiority, female playthings to use and discard as he saw fit. That his playthings were human stopped mattering to him–if it ever mattered. It’s comforting to try to make a human monster into an Other, an aberration. While Seth is terrible, he isn’t, I’m sorry to say, uncommon. And it has nothing to do with mental illness or autism–neither of which describe him. It’s just that some people decided they can own women, and people don’t try very hard to stop them.

75% of women who are murdered by their batterers are killed when they leave or after they leave the relationship. – Domestic Abuse Shelter of the Florida Keys

“What if I told you the Friend Zone was bullshit, and that women are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out?” – Internet meme seen on Pinterest

Elliot Rodgers wrote down and filmed exactly why he wanted to kill. He did not have a diagnosis. What he did have was a community that backed up his entitled misogyny and a home in a society that is willing to let a thousand–a million–small aggressions go unchecked until they absolutely are forced to deal with the fact that women have the right to bodily safety and sovereignty. It was not about autism.

Recent media reports have attempted to suggest a link between individuals on the autism spectrum and violent behavior. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is concerned by the proliferation of misinformation which may contribute to increased stigma and discrimination against Autistic Americans. Autistic people are no more likely than any other group to commit acts of violence. People with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. There is no link between autism and violent crime. Similarly, there is no link between psychiatric disability and violent crime.

Autistic Self Advocacy Network Statement on Media Claims Linking Autism and Violence, May 24 2014

Maggie has become interested in the idea of death. Age-appropriate enough, really–she’s five, starting to understand what happens to the villains at the end of Disney movies, starting to wonder why family members who appear in photographs don’t appear in person, starting to understand that she has three grandparents instead of four, that flowers die in winter, and so on. She had a dream that her dad died, and it scared her so we talked about it. But she is also autistic, and with that comes communication challenges. Pronouns, past/present tense, and synonyms are challenging enough for any five year old, so when she said “I’m gonna kill Dad” I took a HUGE breath and patiently helped her dissect her thoughts. The distinction of “kill” versus “die” was tough to understand. Do I think we have a burgeoning We Need To Talk About Kevin situation here? Absolutely not. But that didn’t keep me from being relieved that she said it to me and not someone who wasn’t able or willing to parse out what she REALLY meant–that her dad died in a dream in her mind, and it upset her.

For me, the usual everyday fright that a parent of a daughter feels knowing they’re walking around in a society that gives mere lip service to her rights has been compounded by terror of Othering–she’s Autistic. She is not a monster. She is not some Other. She is more at risk for being the victim of crime than a perpetrator. But a society unwilling to examine its own misogyny and entitlement problems cannot see that; they need to pretend that the Elliot Rodgers of the world are cut from a different cloth, Not Like Them. And friends, that just isn’t going to do.

My stories are true. Our stories, women’s stories, the stories of a million aggressions and hurts and assaults, are legion.

They were never, ever about autism.

Please–don’t make them about autism.

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For Good

Dear Maggie,

This is birthday letter is quite overdue, but there’s a good reason for it. We spent most of your birth month visiting your grandparents and great-grandmothers in Florida. You turned five there, and it was the perfect way to finish off the amazing ride that was age four. I’ve been trying hard to think of a song (isn’t that how I always frame these things?) that encapsulates the year and how it touched us all. 

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The first thought that comes to mind is, of course, “Let It Go.” The world was swept by Frozen fever, and we were no exception. It was the first movie you saw in theaters; sitting on my lap and enjoying popcorn, you sang when “Let It Go” came on and declared yourself Olaf. (Your sister insists on being called The Princess Of Arendelle, which is another story.) But that led to the second song, and much more appropriate inspiration for this post: in an effort to break the endless cycle of Frozen YouTube videos, we showed you Idina Menzel’s fantastic “Defying Gravity.”

And my sweet girl, you were hooked.

I’m through with playing by the rules
 / Of someone else’s game / 
Too late for second-guessing / 
Too late to go back to sleep / 
It’s time to trust my instincts
 / Close my eyes and leap! It’s time to try / 
Defying gravity
 / I think I’ll try / 
Defying gravity


And you can’t pull me down

The theatricality of the video, the flying, the soaring lyrics–you were beyond moved. This is your song, baby girl. This is what you are about. When we had you we took the huge jump of faith into parenting, and sure enough, with you leading the way we are all soaring. I love that the song embodies everything the last thirteen months have been about, and I think you love it too. You sing softly (and beautifully) to yourself all the time, and I could hardly believe it when I realized this verse was the one I was hearing most often:

I’m through accepting limits / ’cause someone says they’re so / Some things I cannot change / But till I try, I’ll never know!

So many people have tried to tell me that echolalia, the means through which you construct a lot of your speech, is just rote memorization without meaning. I don’t believe it. How can I, when you’ve blown me away with it before? How could I take that affirmation of spirit as meaningless when compared to the depth of your accomplishments over the last year? (Least of which was performing as the Donkey in the Nativity play at school.)

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When you turned four the sight of a blank page filled you with panic. When you turned five, our home had been quite literally papered in your intricate, beautiful, detailed artwork. 

When you turned four, you had moderate/severe fine motor delays. When you turned five, you were putting together 500-piece Lego sets and asked for this awesome set for next Christmas.

When you turned four, we could not find a way to help you reconcile a fear of a particular skill. When you turned five, through your strength of will (and a few Lego bribes) you had overcome your fear and mastered it.

When you turned four, you could not ask or answer a “Why?” question. When you turned five, you had begun to ask and answer, and every single “Why…?” takes my breath away. I cannot get enough. 

You walked up to a little girl to ask her to be your friend. She said yes. You jumped into a fray of screaming, cavorting children…and you danced.

You were through accepting limits. You were through with the bullshit “can’t/never/won’t” and you turn it all on its head. You have a brilliance and depth that has, and I say this without a hint of hyperbole, actually stopped people in their tracks. You have won the hearts of several professionals on our team and left them staring, captivated. You have reorganized what everyone we know thought they knew about who you are and what you can do. 

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To those who’d ground me / Take a message back from me / Tell them how I am / Defying gravity / I’m flying high / Defying gravity / And soon I’ll match them in renown!

That’s your song. That’s your story. That’s your legacy. And you’re only five. How amazing you are, and how deep your power runs.

That’s your song, but since part of these birthday letters are telling you about what you meant to me during this part of our journey together for you to read later, I have to include what I have come to think of as Our Song. And once again, it was the year of Idina Menzel–this time with Kristen Chenoweth.

Because as hard as I try, I can’t imagine you in greenface–you are a Glinda, bright and sparkly. And this line more applies to me anyway:

I’m limited. Just look at you, you can do all I couldn’t do…

I cannot–and wouldn’t try–to claim perfection as a mom. I know if I tried I wouldn’t be believed, but I also know you would remember the truth; the times I was immature, or reacted poorly, or lost my temper over something silly. I’ve been over the legal age of majority for twelve years now and a mother for five, but it has just been in this last year that I’ve started to feel like an adult. I’ve started to shed the authoritarian hardass image I once thought a parent had to project in order to become the kind of mom I actually want to be. And it’s because of you.

I’ve heard it said / That people come into our lives / For a reason / Bringing something we must learn / And we are lead to those / Who help us most to grow if we let them. / And we help them in return. / Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true / But I know I’m who I am today / Because I knew you.

The process of rebuilding that I’ve spoken of in the past is still ongoing, but as you go and defy gravity in your own way I realize we have given each other a gift. So often, I see parents and families disappointed in their children for reasons big and small, and again so often it revolves around expectations. The expectation they’d have a certain orientation, a certain value system, a certain lifestyle. While in some cases the child has made bad choices, in others the hurt has everything to do with the parent projecting their expectations onto a tabula rasa that had the audacity to grow up and become a person of their own. You have shown me the hurt those projected expectations can cause–a realization more common to parents in their 40s and 50s, I think–and in turn I hope that I can live up to the kind of true acceptance and unconditional support, advocacy, and cheerleading you need. The kind of mom you deserve. The kind of mom that makes you know that–even if you make choices that make my head hurt (you will) or if I don’t always understand you (I won’t)–from the second you were born, you have always been loved and wanted for who you are.

 

So much of me / Is made of what I learned from you / You’ll be with me / Like a handprint on my heart / And now whatever way our stories end / I know you’ll have rewritten mine / By being my friend

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
I do believe I have been changed for the better.

And because I knew you…

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Because I knew you…

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Because I knew you
I have been changed…

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For good.

I love you. Always will.

Love,

Mama