Autism experts are cautioning against linking the spectrum disorder to violence in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17.
Several news media outlets included in their coverage of the attack that alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz, 19, had autism, but autism advocacy groups have been quick to say that the two aren’t related.
“A massive shooting happens, and it’s a senseless act of violence,” said Dr. Karoly Mirnics, director of the Munroe-Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “As you are searching for answers, you start to notice differences.” If you haven’t interacted with people on the autism spectrum, you might jump to conclusions, the doctor said.
Autism Speaks, a nonprofit dedicated to autism research, said in a statement that “an autism diagnosis does not explain this horrific act of violence. We know that speculation and misinformation about autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities have hurtful and lasting consequences.”
Common characteristics of individuals on the spectrum might include difficulty communicating and interacting with others, repetitive behaviors and limited interests or activities; the severity of the symptoms vary.
But individuals on the spectrum are not more likely to engage in violent behavior than the general population, said Mirnics, who responded to questions in an interview:
How do you react when you see a news report that a mass shooter suffered from a mental illness, or in this case, has autism?
Frankly I think it’s sad that we have to address the question. When you say in the same sentence “shooter” and “autism,” whether you like it or not, you are creating an association between the two. What happens at that point is people watching say, “There’s a child with autism in my son’s class. Will he be the next one to do this?”
Is there a link between autism and violence?
No. Kids on the spectrum are not more prone to violence of any sort. They are the ones who are much more commonly victims of bullying.
Why do you think that misconception exists?
We are searching for answers. It’s a natural thing that you gather data and try to understand something that is really despicable. You have met tall people or people who are bald and have interacted with all of them, so you do not assume that those characteristics are related to a crime. The behavior of a child with autism might not be part of your normal frame of reference. Then you automatically jump to a conclusion as a result of someone implying that connection in reporting.
What impact does that misperception have on families with children who have autism?
It’s damaging. There’s no question about it. They pay the price for it. It results in isolation, stigma, suspicion and limited opportunities. We have come a long way as a society, but we still have a long way to go.
What’s the most important thing for the community to know so they can get past this as a preconceived idea?
Meet individuals on the spectrum. Interact with them, include them in your activities, learn about them. Don’t expect that they will always exhibit typical behaviors. Come in with an open mind. By learning, understanding and accepting them, it opens a whole new world for us. You will see that they are different than you, but they are not better or worse.