I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to write about the Sandy Hook massacre of 27 people, 20 of them children. I don’t typically write about strong emotions, and what is the aftermath of the death of children but strong emotion? I didn’t want to. But here I am.
When I heard of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, I was horrified and viscerally sickened. I imagine that most people felt similarly, especially those of us who are parents. I thought about my friends and acquaintances in Connecticut and worried for their safety. I thought about my children–my nine-year-old son, who at that moment was in an elementary school classroom exactly like that of the Sandy Hook children. My seven-year-old son and my not-quite-six-year old daughter, so close in age to the young victims. My firstborn daughter, who follows current events and could not be shielded from the truth. The baby who doesn’t yet know she’s been born into a world in which people murder children. I thought about how bodies so small could be broken, how lives so recently begun could be ended. I was not surprised, however. Not by this. The knowledge that there exist people who would kill children is not surprising.
Double consciousness is an ugly, insidious thing, tainting even pure emotions. I cursed myself for letting my thoughts wander to how the murders would affect neurodivergent people, but wander they did. Spree killings are rare, but abuse of disabled people is common. From the moment I learned the killer was a young man, I suspected he would be labeled autistic. Maybe bipolar or schizophrenic, perhaps. It didn’t really matter. Popular opinion doesn’t differentiate diagnoses all that much. Soon there would be calls for more psychiatric hospitals, diminished patients’ rights, monitoring for people with psychiatric labels, streamlined ability to file for guardianship and place adults into involuntary commitment. Patient consent and autonomy would be dismissed as mere bureaucracy and underfunding, senseless impediments to getting people the help they need. Warnings and “profiles” would be issued of the “potentially violent,” which would be broad enough to encompass most social and neurological deviants. Every eccentric loner, with or without a psychiatric label, would be viewed with some suspicion, and people with highly-stigmatized psychiatric labels would be left at the mercy of overzealous police and hospital personnel desperate to prevent another massacre. I was thinking about all of this on the day of the shooting, before having really been reconciled to the event’s having happened. Some would say I was selfish. But double consciousness is an ugly thing.
Made all the uglier, of course, by the fact that, at the time I write this, it would seem that I was more right than I anticipated.
Before there was any confirmation of what, if any, mental diagnoses the killer may have had, people were using the tragedy as a rallying cry for a “national conversation about mental illness.” As with previous mass shootings, “mental illness” is the triangulation point, the middle ground, between pro-gun-control and anti-gun-control positions. Pro-control advocates point out that while murder can be committed with any kind of weapon, mass murder almost always involves a firearm or an explosive, which provide the most efficient methods of killing many people in a short time with minimal opportunity for the victims to fight back. Anti-control advocates argue that regulations will have little effect on criminals, but will prevent law-abiding individuals from defending themselves. But gun control is political, you see. And emotional. And we wouldn’t want to alienate our friends with emotional, politically partisan sentiments like “maybe nobody really needs a semiautomatic assault rifle for legitimate purposes.” So attention is diverted to the nonpolitical, unifying common cause, like the horrible scourge on the country that is The Mentally Ill, and in this case, specifically, Children Suffering From Autism.
There’s one small problem: There’s no link between autism and violence. In fact, although spree killers usually but not always have certain specific psychiatric disabilities (usually those involving psychosis or explosive rage–which represent a small minority of the total psychiatrically-labeled population), violent crime in general is overwhelmingly committed by neurotypicals. 96% of the time, in fact. Yes. 4% of violent crime is committed by people who have some kind of mental illness, disorder, or disability, and the other 96% is committed by people who are completely neurotypical.
There are a few common responses to this fact:
Someone who would do that obviously isn’t really neurotypical.
This is circular logic. “Neurotypical” doesn’t mean “nonviolent.”
Doesn’t the act of shooting, killing, or otherwise hurting another person prove that there is something wrong with a person’s mind?
Arguably, yes. But “something wrong” doesn’t mean “having a condition classified as a mental disorder.” The central claim of the neurodiversity movement is that conditions classified as disorders aren’t necessarily “something wrong,” and the converse also applies: an undesirable condition is not necessarily a neurodivergent one. Psychiatric diagnoses contrast deviant from normal, not undesirable from desirable. “Neurotypical” does not mean neuro-ideal, neuro-optimal, neuro-desirable, or neuro-perfect. It means typical. Normal. Average. Common. Standard. Predictable. Expected. No more than a quick glance through a basic history textbook, or any major newspaper, is needed to demonstrate that in human beings, violence against other humans is (under the right conditions, at least) typical, normal, average, common, standard, predictable, and expected.
Violent crime is an irrational act, therefore anyone who commits it is not in a rational state of mind.
Violence can be rational, but it doesn’t matter, because “neurotypical” doesn’t mean “rational” any more than it means “ideal.” Neurotypical humans are not purely rational creatures. They have irrational desires and emotions. Sometimes they express those emotions through violence.
Some autistics claim that we are actually more rational than neurotypicals, because we’re not burdened by social concerns, but I don’t think this is true, either. Becoming deeply upset when a bookshelf is disorganized isn’t exactly rational. Humans in general, whether neurotypical or otherwise, aren’t wired or evolved to be purely rational beings.
Violence and neurodiversity are almost entirely unrelated.
But somewhere along the way, the discussion of What To Do About The Mentally Ill gets linked to the debate about gun control. The NRA calls for a national database of the mentally ill while adamantly defending its right to wield deadly weapons, while gun control advocates explicitly contrast psychiatric treatment with firearm availability. But the two issues are not related, nor parallel. A gun is an inanimate object. It has no rights, no entitlement to respect, no feelings that can be hurt. Gun owners are people, and some of them are, perhaps legitimately, upset that their hobby is being associated with mass murder. But despite the NRA’s attempt to make it so, “gun owner” is not an identity. It is a state of ownership of an inanimate object.
My Autistic brain is not an inanimate object. It is very much alive, moving and firing, changing and growing. It is the physical manifestation of my consciousness. It is my most distinctive feature. It translates my senses into thought, my thought into memory, and my memory into action. It enables me to form these words I’m writing, and direct my fingers to type them out. Without it, I would die.
My brain is mine. It is not yours, not the government’s, not society’s, not the Church’s, not my family’s or my parents’. Manifestations of my consciousness may affect others, but they do not belong to anyone but me. My thoughts, feelings, desires, perceptions, experiences, and expressions are mine and mine alone.
A key argument for the use of identity-first language (“autistic person“) over person-first (“person with autism“) is that the latter frames the condition as something separate from the self, something which can, perhaps, be changed or removed without harm to the self. Person with autism, person with mental illness, person with an assault rifle. My mind becomes decoupled from myself, detached, dissociated, abstracted, regulated. For the public good. For my family’s good. For my own good.
My brain is not an assault rifle. It is not part of a well-regulated militia. I don’t need a permit or a background check to operate it. My thoughts are not a public safety issue. Because I am a mortal human and not a magical or telepathic fictional character, my brain cannot kill anyone. My consciousness poses no threat to anyone. And unlike a gun, my brain can never misfire.
Guns may be used to kill animals. They may be used to kill people. How we classify their use in this manner depends on the identity of the person killed–an attacker, an invading militant, a murder victim, an innocent bystander? The gun is simply a tool. Tools magnify the potential range of action of the human body. As wheels magnify the traveling power of those who use them, guns magnify, greatly so, the killing power of those who use them. This is self-evident. As objects, they can be controlled. There is no parallel between “gun control” and “mental illness control.” Kindly leave us out of your “national conversation.”