By now, we are all sadly familiar with the horrific school shooting that unfolded last week in bucolic Newtown, CT. Most of us also probably know that the shooter’s name was Adam Lanza and that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition associated with high-functioning autism.
Many of the initial media accounts drew an inaccurate correlation between Asperger’s Syndrome and violence. As someone who is intimately associated with a number of people on the autism spectrum, it is difficult and infuriating to read such vilifying, broad-brush misrepresentations.
Thankfully, this week’s media coverage seems to show more balance. In my own research, I came across several pieces that more accurately characterize those on the autism spectrum. Particularly notable are an op-ed that ran in The New York Times titled, “Don’t Blame Autism for Newtown,” another piece in The Daily Beast titled, “Parents Push Back at Suggestion Autism was Behind Adam Lanza’s Rampage” and a story in Psychology Today, titled, “Aspergers, Autism and Mass Murder.”
Here’s an excerpt from the Psychology Today piece, written by John Elder Robison:
“[Sometimes] early speculation proves unfounded, wrong, or irrelevant. When that happens, innocent people are often harmed by the rush to judgment. I’m very concerned that is occurring right now, as the public digests news reports about the Sandy Hook school murders.
Reporters are saying the killer had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Every time a news story does that – by tying ‘killer’ and ‘Asperger’s’ in the same sentence – they are at some level implying that there is a connection between autism and mass murder.
Statisticians have a phrase for this situation: Correlation does not imply causation.”
David Hamrick and Lindsey Nebeker tend to side with Robison’s viewpoint. And for the record, Hamrick and Nebeker are personal friends of mine who also both happen to have autism. Hamrick, 32 and Nebeker, 30 live together as boyfriend and girlfriend in a townhouse they bought in the Huntington section of Alexandria.
Hamrick received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from N.C. State in meteorology and is currently a local meteorologist with the National Weather Service. He hails from Williamsburg, Virginia. Nebeker was born in Tokyo, Japan and spent the duration of her early years in that city but moved around frequently throughout childhood. Even though she is a U.S. citizen and was born to American parents, she feels “a significant part of my identity and influence resides in Japan.”
Nebeker received her B.A. in Music Technology at the College of Santa Fe.
“I am involved in an ongoing intense love affair with my piano. I have a passion for writing and performing music,” she said.
Nebeker works as a Development Specialist with Autism Society.
In light of the recent tragedy in CT and the media’s fixation on the killer’s autism spectrum disorder, I feel morally responsible and compelled to profile individuals who are more typical of those with autism. Hamrick and Nebeker are two such people and were gracious enough to grant me this interview.
How did you two meet?
Dave: We met at an autism national conference in Nashville, TN. I approached her first and asked her about getting some chairs. We've been in love ever since.
How long have you been in a relationship with each other?
Dave: Seven very happy years.
Does the media fairly portray people on the autism spectrum?
Dave: For the most part, yes, they do. I think there is more awareness than ever before. Most of the portrayals have been accurate. The case with Adam Lanza has been blown out of proportion.
Lindsey: Media portrayal on people on the autism spectrum is reliant on a composite of factors. For a prime time television news piece, for instance, it's not just the person who is interviewing you. It's also the camera crew, the executive producer, the assistant editors, and the reporter (if different from the interviewer). In order for the portrayal on a given media story to be respectful, the entire group of people have to be proactive in paying respect to featured subjects. In order for a media portrayal to really be fair, the people representing the media need to steer away from the concept of sensationalizing and "inspiration porn." They need to focus more on the message of humanizing people on the autism spectrum. In short, we are human and we deserve to be treated as such.
Do you think Adam Lanza's violent acts on innocent children had
anything to do with his alleged Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis?
Dave: No, definitely not. I think it's something totally separate. Some sort of mental health issue. I think they are totally disconnected.
Lindsey: Absolutely not. While many of us may appear to not express empathy, that is far from the truth. I often will detach from conversations and interactions which are emotional, but that's only because I feel emotions so intensely that in order to not completely fall apart, I have to detach. I also detach to protect myself from becoming too vulnerable to anyone who may take advantage of me.
What do you think when you hear, "People with autism are unable to display empathy"?
Dave: I think it's a big load of B.S. Totally untrue. Most are able to express empathy and many can display it better than those who are neurotypical.
Lindsey: Detachment and lack of empathy are two very different things.
Do you struggle with expressing your emotions?
Dave: Sometimes, I do, especially if I am very tired. But most of the time, no. Sometimes it's difficult for me to express what's on my mind in adequate words.
Lindsey: I can struggle with expressing emotions for two reasons. One, every day, there are instances when I actually do not know how to communicate what I want to express or communicate how I am actually feeling. Sometimes, the people surrounding me have no idea how I am actually feeling. And two, I feel uncomfortable expressing emotions which are too intense or place me in a position where I have no self-control. I have no problem being honest about my life, and that does put me in a vulnerable state. But it's different when I am able to express myself on my own terms.
Are people on the autism spectrum more prone to violence?
Dave: I don't see any connection to that. I think they are more prone to being the receivers of violence. Especially since they may not be as socially aware.
How are you unique from a person who isn't on the autism spectrum?
Dave: One word, directomes. Points or pictures on a picture or a photograph that attract an excessive amount of attention. A visual fixation.
[Author’s note – Dave basically looks at the world in pixels. His eyes are drawn to parts of objects or pictures rather than noticing the whole picture. One time while having coffee with Dave at Starbucks, the example he gave me to describe what he meant by “directome” included the Starbucks’ logo. He told me his eyes gravitate to the mermaid’s hair rather than to the mermaid as a whole. Also, a psychologist I know once described a child with Asperger’s Syndrome that he treated, in the following way, “He sees everything except what he is supposed to; he sees the trees but not the forest.”]
What do you want people to know about autism?
Dave: It is increasing in its prevalence. It's more connected to a neurological disability rather than a mental disability. People with autism have lots of special interests or obsessions that other people don't have. And they also will take things more literally.