In the Wake of Tragedy

Like every other educator in America (probably most of the world, too), I’ve been trying to process the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT. It’s not very far from where I live—a few hours’ drive at most. I cannot comprehend the mind of someone who would murder young children, who would even come into a school bent on that kind of violence. I am humbled by the heroism shown by the teachers at Sandy Hook.

I am disturbed by some of the backlash I am seeing towards people with autism. We don’t really even know for sure if Adam Lanza was autistic, and as often as we hear news reporters and talking heads assert that autistic individuals are not violent, the possibility that Lanza was autistic is still continuously brought up. And then you see things like this (follow the link to see the Facebook screen cap).

The resulting response by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is an exercise in restraint and compassion.

As the mother of two children on the autism spectrum, I can tell you my children are amazing, loving, intelligent, beautiful children. Sometimes they have a little bit of trouble with social skills, and empathy is among them. They have difficulty reading emotion. They would never hurt anyone on purpose. I cannot envision a world in which they would they hurt anyone. My children are not monsters. And they do not need to be locked up. They need understanding and compassion.

I fear very much that the next time my son has a minor meltdown in a public place, and as the people around us stare and we explain, “I apologize; he’s autistic,” we will see the people around us recoil—”You mean like that guy who killed all those kids.”

No, not like that guy. Nothing like that guy. Because that kind of violence has nothing to do with autism. I don’t know what causes it. I don’t know if it’s a gun culture, or lack of care for the mentally ill, or lax security in schools, or just plain evil, or all of them and none of them. I really don’t. But I live with autism every day, and I know that it isn’t autism. My children are not violent “ppl,” they are not “monsters,” and they are not (pardon the language, but it’s hers not mine) “sick fucks.” No, it’s people like you that spread misinformation, hatred, and fear who are truly monsters. It is people like you I would want to protect my children from—actually, who I’d like to protect all of society from. The fact that someone, anyone, would say something like this about people, children, they don’t even know, makes me feel sick to my stomach and scared for my children. I pray more than anything else that people like this are able to see the error in their thinking and get help.

The only thing I have to say in closing is that my heart is broken for the children and adults in Newtown, and I hope we have what it takes to be reflective and change. But pointing fingers at individuals with autism, who face enough challenges in life, is not the answer.

2 thoughts on “In the Wake of Tragedy”

  1. Hear, hear. I would just like to add that anyone who would ever characterize any group of children as "sick f—s" is committing a form of violence against children. I have taught many children with high functioning autism/Aspergers from grades 6-12, and without exception, they are not more prone to committing violence than any other children I've taught. The sad fact is, however, that they are more susceptible to misunderstanding, bullying and stereotyping than other children. To empathize or at least try to understand is our innate obligation to one another. Discriminatory thinking about any group of people must stop if we want to create a safe, humane world for all children, even the 'normal' ones. Schools can be the breeding ground for this positive change via programs such as Rachel's Challenge instead of the arena for marginalization. And let's please face the facts: that school, as well as home, is where this must take place if we are to change society for the better.

  2. I, too, have some personal experience with those in the autism spectrum, and teach several children on the spectrum. This event had nothing to do with autism. I spent last week at school hyper-alert to any change in the behavior of students towards my autistic students. Children know better, and I worried for no reason. Wish adults were as honorable and intelligent.

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