This past Friday, the United States experienced an appalling tragedy: 26 people, 20 of whom were children, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The perpetrator responsible, Adam Lanza, is believed to have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, a more severe autism spectrum disorder that not only hinders social interaction but also limits linguistic and cognitive development. Immediately after the status of the gunman’s behavioral health was revealed, a number of media sources alleged that Adam Lanza committed this massacre because he had Asperger’s syndrome.
This myth pervaded the United States. I overheard people saying, “The only reason Adam Lanza killed all those children is because he has Asperger’s.” Such conclusions, however, are unequivocally false. I should know: at age two, I was diagnosed with autism myself.
At an early age, I was lucky enough to attend Variety Child Learning Center in Syosset, N.Y., a school that focuses on early intervention and promotes language and behavioral development. With the care I received at VCLC, most of my symptoms of autism erased or reversed to the point where people consider me highly sociable today.
From the very little I remember of my early childhood, the positivity of my disorder stuck out to me. Every autistic child has extra energy, and each one has an activity that keeps him or her occupied. My diversion was throwing objects: chairs, trash cans, papers—nothing was off limits. That is, until my parents bought a Nerf basketball hoop for my room. Instead of throwing things that could break open the ceiling, I was shooting a mini basketball into a tiny hoop. I was constantly shooting that basketball. My energy was directed towards something positive, and I believe that shooting that Nerf basketball was one of the factors contributing to my triumph over my social disorder.
Positivity and negativity have powerful effects on the autistic population. People put down children and adults struggling with autism because we are different. Someone on the autistic spectrum is 10 times more likely to be bullied because they cannot communicate to people in an efficient way.
After the horrible shooting took place, the media rushed to make any sense of the act of slaughtering 20 first-graders. In the earliest hours of the massacre, reporters learned Lanza had autism, so that stuck. The perfect scapegoat for an atrocity any rational person could not have conceivably committed, autism was the world’s answer to that piercing question: Why?
As a person on the autism spectrum, it sickens me to see the autistic population grouped with depraved figures like Adam Lanza. That’s why I only hope for awareness this Christmas. I’m not a scientist and I still don’t know all the facts, though, from my experience, I do know that positivity works. Instead of condemning people who are on the autism spectrum, we need to lift them up. Children and adults with autism or Asperger’s syndrome should know that they are perfect the way they are, no matter what the media or anyone else says. I don’t want to live in a generation in which autistic kids are seen as potentially dangerous killers. I am tired of society seeing people on the autistic spectrum as different. I hope, collectively, as a nation, we can shoot at that Nerf basketball hoop and direct our extra energy towards more positive goals: increased access to mental healthcare, better protection of our schools, and awareness of autism spectrum disorders.
Devin Gerzof is a freshman in the College.