Thursday, 29 May 2014

And still, they don't get it

In the wake of Elliot Rodger's actions, I wrote this blog about the mistaken and painful perception that a diagnosis of autism and Asperger's Syndrome can make someone a killer.

That day, I also complained to the BBC about its responsibility not to perpetuate this myth, because its online news story about Rodger pointed out his Asperger's diagnosis - which seems to have been wrong, as his family said later they "suspected" but had had no formal diagnosis - in a way that strongly suggested it might be a factor at play and, in my view, invited readers to make the link.

In the same complaint, I protested the BBC's decision to include at the end of its online news story lines of additional information about Asperger's, because it drove home the implicit suggestion that this was a major factor in the killing.

This is the very disappointing response I received today:

"We understand you were concerned that our article referred to Elliot Rodger having Asperger Syndrome.

This information was provided by the family’s lawyer and is included as background detail about the young man involved. There was no suggestion that his Asperger’s led to him committing murder or that people with Asperger’s are predisposed to such violence.

However, given his own comments in his manifesto and video, he was concerned at his apparent inability to form and develop relationships, and it could be that his Asperger’s played some part in those problems. So clearly this was information worth including. 

But like people without Asperger’s, those with the condition are individuals who respond differently to various situations, and we have neither stated nor suggested that Elliot Rodger’s diagnosis was the direct cause of the killings.

Now, I understand how entrenched some people's mistaken views about autism and violent behaviour are. If I had not been aware of this, some of the comments left at the end of my last blog would have left me in no doubt.

But I don't understand why the BBC does not understand. I also don't understand why it failed to see the point I was making about its responsibility not to suggest.

(And I don't understand why the BBC failed to answer my complaint about the fulsome additional information included at the bottom of the Rodger news story about Asperger's Syndrome - how it's diagnosed, what it means, how some individuals might behave - though I do wonder whether that might have anything to do with the fact that those lines quietly disappeared sometime mid-afternoon that day as lots of people joined me in complaining loudly across various social media about the BBC's coverage.)

So I've written back to the BBC again. This time, I've asked: if Rodger had been left-handed, would the BBC have included that information as a relevant detail? It's about as relevant as his Asperger's diagnosis. If he had been deaf, would it have included lines and lines of detail about that medical condition? (And can you imagine the outcry if it had?)

One of the few sensible things I read in the immediate aftermath of what happened in Santa Barbara was the statement by Mark Lever, chief executive of Britain's National Autistic Society. So I'm going to give him the last word, below. And I'm going to hope that the BBC is reading.

"The shootings in California are shocking and our thoughts are with everyone caught up in this tragedy.

“We would urge the public not to jump to conclusions about reports stating that the perpetrator had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, or to associate the actions of one individual with a whole section of society.

"The vast majority of individuals with autism are law abiding and respect the rules of society. Indeed, in many cases, individuals with autism are unusually concerned to keep to the letter of the law, due to the nature of the disability."

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Violent and wrong: Elliot Rodger's crime should not taint my child

Another boy, another gun.

A little later, another photograph.

Brown hair, brown eyes. Slanting cheekbones. A way of tilting the head.

Scrutiny. Debate. Then - aha! He had Asperger's.

The pain of the parents of the children killed by Elliot Rodger is unimaginable. The pain of the parents of Elliot Rodger is unfathomable.

What I can describe is the pain of a another parent, one whose child has Aspergers and who is this morning trying to formulate a response to yet another story in which their child's diagnosis is being held up as an explanation for murder.

While I type this, my daughter is asleep upstairs. It's half-term, and she's tired. Her room is still dark, the curtains closed. I went in earlier to wake her, then changed my mind. She was so fast asleep, so lost in her dreams, that I couldn't bear to disturb her. Instead I stood in the shadows and listened to her soft breathing and to the spring rain pattering on the windows. I looked at her and I thought: my little girl. What will the world make of you now?

I haven't slept. I am indignant, fearful and full of rage - like many others out there adding their voices to this collective shriek of pain. I am in the worst possible state to attempt to present an argument. But when others are shouting such nonsense so loudly, I feel as though I have to try.

For as long as I have known that my daughter was autistic, I have fought against autism stereotypes. My daughter's autism is an essential part of her, but it is not the essence of her. She is sweet and funny and clever and sparky and eccentric and arty .. for so long my biggest frustration was that everyone wanted to label her as Rainman. The number of times Dustin Hoffman's stuttering mathematical genius has been cited in conversations about my daughter's diagnosis is so many I have lost count.

But faced with the conversations I am reading today - the ignorant, block-headed tweets and comments about "kids with Asperger's disease who kill other kids" - I could almost wish back those days of clumsy cliche. They seem so innocent now. That my daughter's diagnosis puts her, in so many lazy, unthinking people's minds, alongside the likes of Rodger and Adam Lanza, who fatally shot twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school, is horrifying.

It's very hard to speak for all people with Asperger's Syndrome. To those denouncing them all this morning as potential mass murderers, I would point out that when you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. However, if I may be allowed one generalisation with which to fight back - most people with Asperger's don't want "revenge against humanity." To say today that all people with Asperger's are potential killers is as reprehensible and wrong-headed as Rodger's own assertion that blonde women were collectively to blame for his unhappiness.

Listen to me. Listen to me.

Autistic people are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

Some people with autism have difficulty understanding other people. But it does not follow to say that every person who has difficulty understanding other people is like that because he or she is autistic.

To say that Elliot Rodger did this because he is on the autism spectrum is like saying Elliot Rodger did this because he was a man, and white.

Autistic people who commit these acts are no more representative of  people with autism than white male serial killers are representative of white males.


As Emily Willingham wrote in her fabulous paper for Forbes earlier this week, the real unifying feature of most mass murderers isn't autism or brain injury, "it's anger and rage, often blasted outward at innocent targets by means of easily accessible firearms."

And in this case, not only is the role played by firearms far more relevant than where Rodger might have been on the spectrum, but - as Jessica Valenti writes in the Guardian today - to dismiss him as a madman also glosses over the role that misogyny and a sexist society played.

I would write more, I would write on and on, but my daughter has just woken up and come down to see me. She is standing in front of me smiling, hair mussed, anticipating a good day. I tell her I love her. She tells me that she loves me back, then goes to cuddle her little sister.

There is a lot to be sifted through and assessed in the Santa Barbara killings. Of all of these things, Asperger's is a detail. It is not a pre-determination.

Grace Under Pressure: Going The Distance as an Asperger's Mum is published by Piatkus in the UK and by New World Library in the U.S.