selling fear

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have been asked numerous times over the last twenty-four hours to write a response to yesterday’s Washington Post article claiming in its sensationally incendiary headline that a recent study has found a significant link between mass murder and autism.

I haven’t been able to write about it. In part because I haven’t had thirty seconds to scrape together and in part because I just haven’t had the emotional energy to wade into this same damned toxic pool of crap yet again.

It’s painful to open the same wounds over and over (though not nearly as painful as I can imagine it must be for those on the spectrum). It’s exhausting to peel back the layers of misinformation created by a format far more invested in counting clicks than delivering unadulterated truth (ditto the last parentheses.)

In an effort to avoid writing this post, I went in search of something that I’d written two years ago in an eerily similar moment, hoping to simply link to it and move on. But that wasn’t going to happen. Because what I found, in my own hand, was this:

Fear becomes truth. Misconceptions and misperceptions and outright lies become the popular zeitgeist. Autistic people who have struggled for so long to be understood — who have finally, painstakingly made strides in changing age-old misconceptions about who they are – who have begun to be seen by society in all of the glory of their complete human dimension are suddenly and terrifyingly thrown back at warp speed to the days of Boo Radley – to a time when it’s okay to channel society’s fear into that which is different – to point fingers at that difference and to connect it to evil – to blame it for incomprehensibly monstrous acts and in so doing to make them the target of all of our sadness and anger and desperate, aching fear that it could happen again.

The media reports back on itself. The news itself becomes its own story. How many times have we heard in the past twenty-four hours. “As we reported in the wake of the Aurora tragedy …”

Every time that we let this go, every time that those with a platform to make a change stand by in silence, fear grows.

Every time that good people say nothing, my daughter, my friends — ALL OF US — pay the price.

I realized that I had no choice. I had to speak up.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, The Autistic Self Advocacy network (ASAN) said the following:

… it is imperative that as we mourn the victims of this horrific tragedy that commentators and the media avoid drawing inappropriate and unfounded links between autism or other disabilities and violence. Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. Should the shooter in today’s shooting prove to in fact be diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with another disability, the millions of Americans with disabilities should be no more implicated in his actions than the non-disabled population is responsible for those of non-disabled shooters.

Today’s violence was the act of an individual. We urge media, government and community leaders to speak out against any effort to spuriously link the Autistic or broader disability community with violent crime. Autistic Americans and other groups of people with disabilities persist in facing discrimination and segregation in school, the workplace and the general community. In this terrible time, our society should not further stigmatize our community. As our great nation has so many times in the past, let us come together to both mourn those killed by acts of heinous murder and defend all parts of our country from the scourge of stigma and prejudice.

People with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. But as scary as that may be to our families, it isn’t the kind of scary that sells newspapers.

The scary that sells comes in the form of headlines that are then dramatically tempered, if not outright contradicted within the body of the articles that follow. By buried text like the following:

The researchers stressed the study is “clearly limited” by the “anecdotal and speculative” nature of some of the published accounts. Lead researcher Clare Allely, of the University of Glasgow, emphasized the study did not suggest those with autism or Asperger’s are more likely to commit murder.

And …

Despite the patterns that emerged in the study, researchers cautioned against sweeping conclusions. Neurodevelopmental disorders, they said, do not portend mass murder.

“It is crucial to note that we are not trying to suggest that individuals with ASD or previous head trauma are more likely to be serial killers or commit serious crime,” Allely said. “Rather we are suggesting that there may be a subgroup of individuals within [mass killers] who may be more likely to commit serious crimes when exposed to certain psychosocial stressors.”

Those quotes can both be found in the body of the very article whose headline ignores the pleas within them.

Please don’t be misled by incendiary headlines and sensationalist reporting. While it might be a game of pay-per-click to those who sell newspapers, it’s no game when it comes to our and our loved ones’ ability to live and work and love and thrive in our society without the weight of bigotry reinforced by a totally unwarranted spectre of fear.


Further reading:

Serial Killers, Autism, The Washington Post And Divorce In Maine by John Elder Robison

Autism Mass Murder Link? Washington Post Needs to Learn to FACT CHECK by Paula C Durbin-Westby

Some Words Matter More Than Others by Pucks and Puzzle Pieces

For hard facts on Autism / Asperger’s / mental illness and crime:

Paula C Durbin-Westby

Wandering Stars Fact Bomb

Radical Neurodivergence Speaking

For how this type of speculation affects our autistic friends and family:

Autistic Hoya’s All I Want to do is Weep

For ASAN’s full Statement

Media Reports Regarding Newtown, CT Shooting

For the full post from which I quoted above

Stepping Into The Void

Please feel free to leave links in the comments as this is just a beginning.

5 thoughts on “selling fear

  1. To the very core of me, I was furious when I saw the first mention of the article on my FB page. It was from another autistic adult who was angry and horrified. He was repeatedly attacked on his blog the last time this sort of thing hit the news. Someone called him a monster. I personally have never faced that sort of attack. My children have yet to face repercussions…but, that doesn’t matter. If it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. It is abominable.

  2. The headline is misleading (like a lot of headlines on any number of topics) and the article clearly states there is no direct link between violence and autism.

    This is similar to the kerfuffle that broke out after Andrew Solomon’s interview with Peter Lanza was published in the New Yorker — an article that, multiple times, stated that there was no link between autism and violence, let alone mass murder.

    A teeny-tiny, fraction of a thousandth of a percentage point of individuals with autism are violent. Not unlike the teeny-tiny fraction of NTs who are violent. And folks with blue eyes or curly hair or who were born on February 15th, etc.

  3. Pingback: Some Words Matter More Than Others | Pucks and Puzzle Pieces

  4. Good for spreading the word on spreading fear. It is a classic thing done by anti-autistic hate groups claiming to be autism charities and who do nothing about the demonizing of autistics in the media. The media and it’s think-tank allies use people’s tragedies for their own personal gain and care nothing about the victims who are already there or the ones that they are creating.

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