In December 2012, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people, 20 of them children. We later learned that he’d killed his mother before going to the school.
His many issues relating to social isolation came out in the following months, including the fact that he had Asperger’s syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder.
As an autistic person, those subsequent headlines startled me, and not just because innocent people were killed. I talked to some people online after the shooting, and this was the first time some of them had ever heard of Asperger’s syndrome. They first heard about it as a result of a mass shooting at an elementary school.
That got me wondering: How can we as journalists report on autism in a fair and accurate manner that lacks sensationalism and speculation but is grounded in humanism and facts?
Here are the basic facts that every journalist should know about autism.
VIOLENCE: PERPETRATOR OR VICTIM
There is no correlation between autism and premeditated violence. I say premeditated for a reason. There are two types of violence: premeditated and affective.
Affective violence means it is caused by a reaction to something, either an experience or some sort of physical stimuli. Adam Lanza dressed up in fatigues and drove himself to Sandy Hook after killing his mother, which indicates premeditation or preplanned violence.
Premeditated violence is not something that is common among people with autism. Autistics are more likely to be the victims. The hallmarks of autism, especially Asperger’s syndrome — high IQ, social awkwardness and social anxiety — make autistics more likely to be the target of emotional and physical abuse by neurotypical people. (Neurotypical is a term that some autistics use to describe people who are not autistic.) Most of us autistics have been bullied in some form by neurotypical people at some point in our lives.
It is entirely possible to be autistic and have a mental illness. This is comorbidity. Many autistics have PTSD as a result of having to live in a neurotypical world and because of abuse they’ve endured. Most autistics do not have any mental illnesses whatsoever, and many lead very successful and meaningful lives. That being said, autism itself is not a mental illness.
There is some debate in the disability advocacy circles about the use of person-first language. The general consensus is that person-first language is not preferable. Person- first language refers to phrases such as “person with autism” when referring to an autistic person. The alternative to this language is “autistic person,” which in general is the preferred term. There are, however, a few autistics who prefer person-first language, so when interviewing an autistic person, always ask how they refer to themselves. In cases where you cannot ask, “autistic person” is preferred.
Almost all disability advocates have heard of this term. “Inspiration porn” basically follows this trope: A disabled person overcomes all sorts of obstacles to achieve something great but is only able to do so with the help of a non-disabled person.
These stories portray the disabled person as inspirational when they are simply trying to do something that most people do on a regular basis, like find a job, go to prom or play basketball. Often these stories play up the role of the non-disabled person in such a way that it seems the disabled person could not have achieved what he or she did without another person’s help.
Stories like this are worrisome because they can portray the disabled person as being weak and helpless and incapable of doing basic things without the help of a nondisabled person. This portrayal is so central to the trope that they portray the accomplishments of these basic things as being inspirational, hence the name “inspiration porn.” They are derived from the belief that you are only valuable based on what your abilities are. These stories can come offas prejudicial and ableist (as in biased against those with disabilities). It’s best to avoid doing them, or at least question how they’ll be perceived.
EPIDEMIC OR NOT
Often when reporting on autism, journalists use words like “epidemic” and “cure.” These are words that are primarily associated with diseases. Autism is not a disease. The use of such language is ableist.
Much of the reporting I’ve seen on autism is about possible cures. This is hurtful to autistics because the message that is inadvertently sent is that autistics are diseased.
The negative message is that autistic people as a whole are a burden on society. That is just not true. Many of us are employed, including as journalists, and are your peers and co-workers.
If you have a question, don’t be shy about asking us.
Robert Moran is Desk Assistant at ABC News in the Los Angeles bureau. He is autistic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or interact on Twitter: @RMoranABC
Tagged under: diversity