Overreaction against people with Autism from the terrible shootings in Newton Connecticut. It is an understandable concern given the prominence given in early media reports to the shooter’s supposed Asperger’s syndrome.
It is right for those who have developmental disabilities and those who live and work with them to be on guard against stereotyping fears and other misconceptions. Using broad labels to characterize individuals is always a bad idea. In emotionally charged situations it can be very damaging and even dangerous.
But overreacting on the part of individuals with developmental disabilities and their colleagues can be equally dicey.
So far there are no indications that the tragedy in Newton is spawning any irrational outbursts against people with developmental disabilities. Nothing wrong with having watchful eyes. Those who try to whip up fears and subsequent actions unnecessarily though, can do much harm.
Advocacy is not simply knowing when to act and doing so, it is knowing when not to act. Too many times I think we raise the alarms because we are geared that way. Meeting the challenges of public misconceptions about people with disabilities is one of the primary activities of advocates, their groups and their organizations. Most of the times it is okay to whip up some heat out of thin air.
However, in highly charged situations such as the aftermath of the shooting in Newton, it can fuel dialogue and debate where none was forthcoming. It’s like that scene from the movie “All the President’s Men,” about the Nixon Watergate scandal, where the reporter tells his bosses that the White House denied that one of their people was involved. “Isn’t that you expected,” the one editor asks? “Absolutely,” the reporter says. “But I never asked them about Watergate. I only asked if Hunt ever worked at the White House.”
Advocacy is a little bit like public information and, yes, even the much maligned public relations. They all seek to ensure that public opinions are formed that benefit constituencies. In my opinion, that goal is best served through the dissemination of accurate, truthful information. Sometimes in the heat of rapidly changing events the parameters of the information are ill defined. So the medical, Hippocratic model is a good one to adhere to—first do no harm.
This post-Newton situation is still fluid. Isolated incidents will undoubtedly crop up where individuals who are “different” are further stigmatized and ostracized. Any bullying remains a serious and ongoing threat to people with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and others. In my tracking of the discussions about Newton I haven’t seen enough about how our so-called “human” (I would say tribal) tendencies to reject those who are different from us and ours exacerbates the anxieties of troubled loners, sometimes pushing them closer to whatever their obscure and unknowable breaking points are. This is an ongoing advocacy effort we can all get behind, now, in the upcoming weeks and for years to come.
On the specific fears of a sweeping backlash against people with developmental disabilities in the wake of Newton though, it seems that media reports are treating this factor, appropriately, as one of many and not one that carries a great deal of weight in defining the actions of Adam Lanza. Early concerns of an Autism/Asperger’s backlash have so far, thankfully, not materialized.
There has been a great deal of attention paid to mental health issues. These bear watching. Stigmatization of anyone for a label or condition they share with someone involved in highly publicized incidents affects us all. Simply because it is not “your group” or “your type” that is targeted doesn’t mean it won’t be next time. We all need to stand up and denounce such stigmatizing, no matter the origin— disability, mental state, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender preference, what have you.
As the stories unfold out of the Newton tragedy let’s not start fires to be put out. There is plenty of other work to do—across the aisle with our counterparts in the mental health field; with school personnel on ways to reduce the sense of “other” and “un-belonging” among those students who are a little different from their peers; and with the rest of the community to promote rational discussions around how best to minimize the damage when those efforts and all else fails