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The Problem I Have With the ‘Today’ Show Using Autism in This Report

Autism does not equal mass shooter. However, the media often include information in their stories that may lead the general public to make that assumption. Right now the tragic and senseless shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon is all over the news, as is the subject of autism. For example, the “Today” show ran a news clip on Oct. 6, 2015 with the description that “Information about the gunman in last week’s mass shooting in Oregon is emerging, indicating that his mother may have had an impact on his fascination with guns.” Then the first part of the piece proceeded to discuss not guns, but autism.

Here is the clip:

The reporter stated: “Startling new revelations about the mother of Chris Harper-Mercer, a shooter who killed nine people at Umpqua Community College last week. For over a decade Laurel Harper, a registered nurse, offered online advice on various medical issues like Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that she wrote both she and her son struggled with.”

The story also mentioned that Harper wrote of dealing with a “screaming autistic headbanger.” Why was that necessary? Without explanation, it segued into the portion that was actually related to the story’s description: that the mother’s involvement with guns and the way she exposed her son to them may have possibly helped contribute to her son’s obsession with firearms.

So what was the link that viewers were supposed to make between the “new information” about autism within the family, and the new information about their involvement with guns? What was “Today” trying to imply? Why was autism even relevant to a story that seemed to be about the fact that the mother taught her son how to shoot guns?

It seemed to me to be a sensationalistic treatment of autism, not relevant to the story and disrespectful to autistic people in general.

Stories like these can help foster the fear and stigma autistic individuals so often face.

Other sources actually have gone as far as to directly link autism and violence. Earlier this week a Facebook page made direct, incorrect and hurtful statements about autistic people. They stated that a commonality between mass shooters was that they had a “lack of empathy and compassion due to autism.” I will not increase the notoriety of these trolls by stating the name of their page (which has since been removed from Facebook), but I will say that their claims are false. The statement “autistic people lack empathy” is a misleading stereotype. Many actually have an excess of empathy and can find it overwhelming, so they keep it inside. Others may express it in unconventional ways. But to make the overarching statement that they all lack empathy would be grossly unfair to a diverse group of people. Being autistic does not make a person more prone to commit violence.

Years ago, while the world was reeling from what transpired at Sandy Hook, bestselling author John Elder Robison wrote an article for Psychology Today called “Asperger’s, Autism, and Mass Murder.” Speculation had arisen then, as now, that the shooter may have had Asperger’s. Robison is himself autistic (he describes himself using both terms Asperger’s and autistic), and he warned, “Let’s stop the rush to judgment.” He also stated plainly, “Correlation does not imply causation.”

Some may argue that the “Today” show and other similar news sources were not implying that autism makes one more prone to commit violence. Unfortunately, as Robison wrote, when you jointly mention Asperger’s and mass murder, it causes the general population to make assumptions. He writes:

“…because the average person does not know enough about Asperger’s to know it does not turn people into mass murderers. They file that factoid away until the next time they see someone with Asperger’s. Then, instead of giving him a fair shake, they treat him as a potential killer. Everyone loses. As an adult with Asperger’s, who’s seen enough discrimination already, I’m not too happy about that.

So what do we do when we are faced with hurtful statements and misleading stereotypes? Part of me was afraid to write about this, for fear it would cause more people to get the wrong impression of autism. I have a son who is autistic, and the world is increasingly hostile to people like him — people I think are wonderfully unique. People who deserve to be treated with respect. Therefore I cannot keep silent. I will fight to make the world a safer place for people with autism.

I live in fear of how the world may treat my son and others like him. The world is actually more aggressive to autistic people than autistic people are to the world. Robison had similar thoughts, and wrote: “There is nothing in the definition of Asperger’s or autism that would make a person think we are a violent group. That’s reinforced by criminal justice studies telling us that people with autism are much less likely to commit violent crimes than the average person. Indeed, those studies show autistic people are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. 

“If you’re looking for a group of people to fear, we’re not it.”

I am grateful for the leadership and voice of people like Robison. Yet it upsets me that his words are relevant and necessary yet again. I am distraught that there was yet another mass shooting. I am angry that there are articles and Facebook pages and news reports out there that spread speculation that help contribute to the public’s misunderstanding of autism and also increase stigma.

I would ask media sources like “Today” to practice more responsible journalism. I ask them to be more sensitive to individuals who are already far too often victims of scorn, discrimination and hurtful stereotypes. If they do cover stories of autism in the news, I would ask that they consult with individuals who are actually autistic. I hope they will cover more positive stories related to autism and not just sensationalistic negative ones.

I would also encourage all of you to read Robison’s entire article. He says it so much better than I ever could. Help stop the spread of stigma and misconceptions.

We have so much more work to do to help make the world a better place.

A version of this post first appeared at Seriously Not Boring. Jennifer can also be found on Facebook at the page Seriously Not Boring

Lead photo source: Screenshot from the ‘Today’ show video