Monday, December 17, 2012

A Disturbing Equivocation

First of all, let me say that I am truly horrified by last Friday's events at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Words fail me. I can not wrap my mind around the whole thing. Each individual facet of what has transpired is just too horrific for me to process.

A very disturbing issue that I can process, and "weigh in on" is the current equivocation in the media of Asperger's/Autism with mental illness. At the first mention of this, I felt like awareness and public education on the topic had been set back twenty years. In pondering this, I've come up with some talking points on the dangers of this equivocation, why it's incorrect, and lastly, what I believe we are really seeing play out in two recent school shootings.

I don't have to explain to any parent of an autistic child why this equivocation is both disturbing and dangerous. The shiver it has sent through our community felt like a blast wave. Other parents have contacted me. Non parents who love autistics have contacted me. People who have generally shown no interest at all in this facet of our life has contacted me. This is a big one folks.

Growing up in the 1970's as the only known Tourette's patient in rural Eastern Louisiana, I know first hand what it's like to be viewed as mentally ill. People thought I was crazy. Until my diagnosis, I thought I was crazy. Autism was not understood as a spectrum at the time. Tourette's was the only diagnosis that fit part of my symptoms. To most, I was a smart, but really weird, messed up kid. Many believed I wouldn't amount to much and weren't very transparent about it. We non neurotypicals (NNTs) are a perceptive lot. Even those of us who can't verbalize what we think and feel know who sees us benevolently and who doesn't.

Let me stop here and ensure my dear readers that I have nothing against those with mental illness. I've known plenty of bipoloar, schizophrenic, and unfortunately, sociopathic people. It is not my intent to slander these people in any way. They deserve compassion. My point is, we are not the same as they are. Our "issues" stem from different causes.

Non neurotypical folk (NNT), just as the term implies, have non typical nervous systems. Our issues are largely due to incorrect/malfunctioning/missing neuropathways. Recent findings in autism research have begun to identify the types and locations of the missing pathways. Those with mental illness are dealing with neurochemical imbalance. While the boundary between the two is fuzzy at best, this is an important distinction to understand.

NNT people people struggle with processing emotions and moods, because they do not naturally build the skills for such processing as they age. Neurotypical people do. This is one of the reasons that the term "developmental disability" is so accurate, though unpopular with the PC folk. NNT's do not hear voices, have delusions, etc. When an NNT "acts out" it's because they have not developed the coping skills to manage and mitigate what they are experiencing. This difference is paramount.

The critical difference between NNT issues and mental illness is that the developmental issues caused by High Functioning Autism in all its forms can be mitigated with educational and therapeudic interventions. It is a slow process.  All learning involves the creation of neuropathways. Those pathways that are "naturally developed" in NT people can be purposeful developed in NNT individuals.

Many NNTs have anger issues. NNT parents know this. The appropriate application of therapeudic, educational, and pharmaceudical interventions can and do build the missing pathways and teach these intelligent, sensitive people to process their feelings in a healthy, nonviolent manner.

Unfortunately, many parents are unwilling to incur the emotional, financial, and temporal costs associated with properly raising an Autistic child. The internet is rife with pseudo-science and in some cases fraudulent claims regarding "holistic" remedies for autism. The temptation to believe that our children will someday "grow out of it" is massive, but a dangerous solace at best. The desire to raise "unmedicated kids" comes from a noble place, but is largely ill informed and naive.

How do I "know these things"? I've seen it. Those who know us at this stage of our life know our "gentle giant". They know Nathan to be a polite, respectful, long-suffering teen with a certain endearing quality. They never saw the frustrated little boy who had numerous room-clearing meltdowns in elementary school. They never saw his almost super human strength when his emotions bested his coping abilities. The names and faces of his medical, neurological, psychological, and therapeutic team aren't part of their image of him. They'll never know the brave elementary teachers, psychologists, and administrators who, with our full support, faced him down and taught him to use appropriate means of expression when violence seemed his only option in his mind. Those around us see the Nathan that those people helped formed. They see him, and they see the shooter. It makes little sense to those who didn't witness the process.

Unfortunately, I've seen the other side as well. I've seen parents who refused to implement the sound, proven methods for helping their High Functioning Autistic kids. I've been told that it's just too hard, or unfair to the child. If not implemented early, the child grows into an angry, confused, yet highly intelligent and perceptive teen. Without early, appropriate interventions, those who don't aren't able to learn skills themselves become a ticking time bomb. Lacking the skills to appropriately process their angst, their interactions with the world around them resemble mental illness more with passing time. I wouldn't be surprised if they don't actually "cross that line" at some point and develop true mental illness due to the pressure on their psyche from the ever increasing stress and angst.

My heart breaks for the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary. I can not begin to comprehend the sorrow, pain, and anger the people of that community are being forced to process. My heart also breaks for an intelligent perceptive young man who is like my own dear Nathan in his early life, yet so unlike him further down his path.

In once again considering Autism equal to mental illness, we introduce yet another risk into these people's lives. This dangerous equivocation removes from view the fact that proper coping skills can be taught. Mental illness can't be "learned out of", in many cases, the emotional and social developmental issues of autism can. We lose sight of this to our own peril.


  1. I knew you would have a good piece on this! Thank you for writing it.

    1. Thanks Lanette!! I'm honored to have you as one of my most faithful readers.