Monday, December 24, 2012

Shooting coverage and Asperger Syndrome

With the recent shooting there has been a lot of spin put on demonizing the shooter.  Its easy to understand why, nobody likes a mass murderer.  But with the sensationalistic reporting and the focus on the shooter having psychological problems I've been bothered by attempts to gloss over who the guy was and present black and white ideas like "keep guns away from psycho people" and things like that as if that would have actually solved anything.  A lot of conclusions have been jumped to and a lot of bad reporting is happening.  I had a few thoughts.

There have been media reports that the shooter had "a personality disorder" or "undifferentiated mental problems" but the only specific information that seems to have come out yet is that he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.  First, Asperger Syndrome is not a personality disorder.  I'm not going to go into defining it now (as if that were even relevant with the DSM-V coming out) but reporting it so many different ways was kind of dumb to begin with-probably just a consequence of the news trying to get out the information faster than they could verify it.  Apparently they haven't even verified the autism spectrum diagnosis, that's speculation based on publicly observed behavior which has no more verification to its reporting than early reports this his mother was a school teacher, that his brother was the shooter, or that he was dressed in a military style outfit, none of which apparently was true but got reported anyways.

Second, it has been emphasized in some reports that Asperger Syndrome is not correlated with violent crime and that the violent crime in question would be more likely to be done by someone with depression.  I'm happy that some media outlets have taken the time to mention that violence with weapons is not specifically common in Autistics, but the reporting on that end was about as simplistic in a good way as the reports slanted at making him sound "psycho" were simplistically bad.  First, in any large population you will find people with more or less violent tendencies.  Saying that Autism disorders are not correlated with gun violence is like saying that the average joe won't steal your lunch.  A few average joes will steal your lunch, most won't.  Second, saying that the shooting would be more likely done by someone with depression ignores the fact that the rate of depression among people with Asperger Syndrome is pretty high.  I haven't been able to find solid statistics on suicide but from what I've found the anecdotal evidence with Asperger Syndrome also shows a high suicide rate.  I even found one website that said the suicide rate was likely under reported because the adults with Asperger Syndrome are often undiagnosed and therefore not showing up in suicide statistics.

In the reports about his mothers gun collection one nuance is getting left out.  One of Tony Attwood's books recommended watching out for any obsessions with weapons because that could be a warning sign that the child is thinking about taking revenge on the bullies in his/her life.  Since the gun collecting was already a family hobby its possible that this warning sign wouldn't have functioned.  That isn't to say that she shouldn't have had a right to own a gun collection or that having a child with a mental disability should disqualify you from gun ownership, its just a nuance that is overlooked in the reporting.  Granted, at 20 something the shooter wasn't exactly looking for revenge against 1st grade bullies.  My guess is that the kid had a really horrible experience  going through elementary school and wanted to go destroy anybody he could find at the school as a way of expressing his anger at the school he grew up in.  Most people talk about how horrible their middle school years were, I wouldn't know because I was home schooled starting about half way through my last year of elementary school.  However, I can remember one of my favorite things about switching to homeschooling at first was that I had a chance to simply relax and let go of a lot of anger and hatred that had been building up towards my peers.  Since all of the people who had teased or ignored me or simply failed to be able to be my friend were no longer part of my life I could simply let go.  It was a long time before I realized that the bad experiences I had in elementary school were largely caused by my being unable to cope with the social environment rather than it being an environment that was toxic in general.

My experience in elementary school was bad enough that I had stopped hoping to find new friends and I had several incidents in a row where I tried to befriend someone based on the fact that they had not made fun of me in the past and they started making fun of me as a result-apparently to teach me to show my distance so that their social standing wouldn't be hurt by my attention.  I pretty much had come to the conclusion that no matter what new people I met I wouldn't find any more friends beyond the few I already had.  I won't say that homeschooling solved my life problems- homeschooling was hell in some other ways and I'm not sure which set of experiences would have been more emotionally damaging over time- staying in public school or homeschooling.  By the time I left home I struggled with believing that in certain specific ways I was a worthless human being and didn't deserve respect from other people.  And that was somewhat up from my mid teens when I frequently believed I was completely worthless and didn't deserve to live.  The last pieces of that feeling of worthlessness didn't fall away until maybe a year or two before getting married.

A lot of reports are talking as if the shooter was a thoroughly evil psychopath who should have been obvious to identify and therefore treated through better public mental programs or prevented from owning any guns (which ignores the fact that they were his moms guns, not his).  And while murdering tons of little kids is definitely and thoroughly evil, I have trouble seeing the man behind the shootings as pure evil.  I tend to see someone whose life had been hell.  Someone who one day snapped and lashed out at his mother who may have been an angelic caretaker or an infantalizing-you'll-never-achieve-anything-demon-hiding-in-mommy's-social-respectability.  Or maybe a little of both, humans are complicated.  Having murdered her I suspect he kind of said to himself that as long as he was that evil he might as well take out as many people as he could in a place he hated before he killed himself.  Probably if he hadn't snapped on that day he would have eventually found some firmer ground for himself, life would have gotten better in some ways eventually.  Perhaps he could have done about anything, it sounds like the guy was brilliant.  If he had held on for just a little bit longer... but he didn't and he went out in a way that will make it harder to tell stories of people like him without stigma following them.  I just don't see the pure evil that makes good news headlines.  I see someone who maybe was a little bit or even a lot like me-that failed to hold on and reacted violently.  Its true there is nothing about the Asperger syndrome that makes you inherently more violent than anyone else, but if its true he had it we can imagine his life had some pretty hard knocks involved in just getting through the normal world on a regular basis.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Can you love those you do not know?

Last week in Sunday School the teacher asked why people doubted the church.  One of the audience members appeared set on taking a hardline position on the subject in his comments, giving reasons as examples which called into question the person doubting instead of the situation in which the doubt arose.  For example, he remarked that people doubted the church to provide justification for their pursuit of a hedonistic lifestyle.  I had to chuckle at that, as my own periods of doubt have been characterized by gut wrenching soul searching, not so much hedonism.

It was another of those moments that I try to ignore because the teacher really has more power than I do to provide a welcoming or unwelcoming atmosphere for such comments and the question didn't seem worth investing in enough to try to come up with a bunch of alternate view comments.  What are my views?  Though this area is complicated and bigger than you can capture in just a few sentences, I think people doubt the church because the grey area between where the divine revelation stops and the imperfect culturally influenced crazy normal people begins is so fuzzy.  Where exactly the line is is not an area for black and white thinking, and reasonable people can disagree on whether there is any divine element at all.  We are, after all, human.  When we only provide lip service to the concept of the church being made up of imperfect people who are still people, then when their occasional lack of godliness becomes too obvious to ignore it can generate doubts.  When it comes down to it, some things deserve to be doubted.

I remember listening to these comments in Sunday School about how people doubt because of their personal failings and thinking that the man must never have had a heart to heart conversation with someone who was actually doubting or had given up faith.  Or if he had, his need to judge people whose views threatened his own overshadowed his ability to listen.  Perhaps its a form of "Confirmation Bias," where maybe he just tended to only associate with people or remember things about them that reinforce his own views because he is human, and as a result just doesn't know people who have serious doubts or perhaps ignores those doubts and as a result doesn't know the people as complete human beings.  When you allow yourself not to know someone, you remove the possibility of loving them in a concrete way that would actually matter as much to the person on the receiving end.  You could easily love them as abstractions whom you wish to have plenty of calories and shelter, but not the kind of love where the person feels you know who they are, what matters to them, and can sympathize with the personal goals and ideals they have that separate them as an individual from all of humanity.

Even though I tend to be somewhat terrified of establishing real human connections to the people around me on a daily basis, I value the small ways that I can find to give myself a human connection to people whose lives are hurt by the way the word exists.  So I can read a biography about a civil rights lawyer and start to imagine the inner mind set and priorities of people to whom the events of the civil rights movement weren't simply a mildly interesting past.  I can learn to identify how my own mind has been poisoned by a subconscious racism and start to question how that makes me relate to the class Teaching Assistant or to the man sitting next to me at the airport.  I've listened to how homosexuals can describe a quest for self actualization and acceptance using arguments that are exact mirrors of what I might use to describe a need for self actualization and acceptance for autistics and start to let go of fear and question just how concrete the barriers that supposedly divide us are.  Then, when coworkers start berating a bisexual employee who just came out of the closet at work, I can realize that that employee is doing a kind of reaching into darkness that I might do when I take a chance on letting someone know that I am on the autistic spectrum.  There are many kinds of closets to come out of, and people who have shared a sense of isolation and darkness can help each other out.

I can read accounts of women whose quests for self fulfillment have been hampered on so many sides by a society that historically has made a lot of choices for them to benefit someone else.  Then, when I hear someone say that perhaps the world needs to be changed to loosen things up a bit I can see and hear the idea with eyes and ears not just my own, but also of the people who have been hurt.  I can talk to friends and family members who have doubts or who have abandoned faith and cherish having a chance to know a little bit more of who they are, not just who the talks given by church leaders and members say they should be.

That isn't to say that I am particularly skilled at listening and loving.  I'm fully capable of being an ignorant oaf and am poor at regulating the perceptions I broadcast to other people.  I can count plenty of occasions when I've been trying to connect to people and what came out was more or less horrible.  But I feel if I don't try I won't simply be stumbling into the occasional serious social error, I actually will be horrible.

If we cut ourselves off from listening to those who we don't understand or don't lack overt differences with we fail to know them and instead know only the false images of them we create in our mind to provide for our own mental security.  We can never fully know another person just as we can never fully know ourselves.  But, to the extent that we are willfully ignorant of other people, we cannot love them.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Thoughts on the DSM 5

So its been announced finally that the DSM V will definitely merge the autism and Asperger syndrome diagnosis.  As someone who would never have been diagnosed without Asperger syndrome being split into its own grouping, I'm kind of sad to see the name go.  There were a lot of positive cultural things that happened around the Asperger syndrome label with people who wrote books or made movies or made websites showing how there were some people who are different and its not all a bad thing.  Sure, sometimes there is crazy negativity that goes along with anything like this, which for me including not being allowed to serve a mission, a deep sense of social isolation at church from being excluded from the social bonding of being able to share mission experiences, being afraid of ignorant judgmental people at church, and a family member who seemed convinced Asperger syndrome really meant some kind of blend between Frotteurism and antisocial personality disorder.  But the negatives for me were really outweighed by finally figuring out what was going on inside my head, gaining a vocabulary to explain myself to other people, and discovering a community of people for whom experiences like mine weren't unique.  It went from feeling like my life represented some kind of isolated freakshow to understanding that there were many people like me who had joined together to form ways to build self respect.

The passing of the label will have a minimal influence on me personally.  I rarely talk about it to anyone I know in person and I can on a surface level pass as normal most of the time.  When I do talk about it the extra work of defining Asperger syndrome typically outweighs the feeling of risk that no one will believe me if I said I was autistic.  I can typically get away with saying that I'm what it looks like when you have a case of autism that is mild enough that at this stage in life you'd have to know me well to tell it was there.  I can pass well enough as normal and can be am picky enough about who I disclose to I can afford that.  I can definitely sympathize with people whose symptom obviousness or the choices of their caretakers prevent them enjoying such control over who knows and who doesn't.

Hopefully society will stop demonizing the condition as a way to do fundraising for their organizations and people will start to realize that when you have met one autistic you really have only met one autistic.  Maybe the world will stop having so many biases against and constraints on the disabled so that the label will be less of a stigma.  The name change leaves plenty to be afraid of, assuming we don't make for ourselves a better world.