Op-Ed: Autism is Not...

Autism did not massacre 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut.

Autism is not the cause to the effect of 20 murdered children in Newtown, Connecticut.

Autism is not mental illness.

Autism is not often obvious.

Autism is not curable.

Autism is not what I wanted for my first born child.

As the mother of an autistic child, I sit in rapt attention as the news media has begun its subtle assault in correlating the horrific massacre of 20 first-graders with the alleged shooter's autism. Despite the recent headline grabbing retractions, the damage has been wrought. And it has been wrought upon the children, siblings and parents of those afflicted by autism.

Whether we as parents realize it or not, as much as we tried to filter the information our children received about what happened in Newtown, many already knew about it before they left school Friday. As I waited for my daughter at the fenced entrance to the middle school, cluster after cluster of girls and boys came rushing through doors talking about it and were in the process of trying to process it.

Living everyday in this world of autism, it is heartbreaking to think that these children, so often silent victims of misunderstanding, are being further misunderstood. It was heartbreaking to hear the fear in my daughter's voice as she whispered to me Monday morning that she was afraid to go to school because her friends in middle school might think that she has it within her heart to hurt them. It was heartbreaking to hear the pleading in her soft voice.

It is unreasonable to think that we, as parents, can keep the details of what happened in Newtown from middle schoolers. Not when parents arm them with smart phones and iPads. If we are to arm children with such easy access to information, then we must also arm them with information.

To correlate autism with mental illness serves only to stigmatize an already stigmatized population. Autism is a lifelong neurological developmental disorder.

Although many children diagnosed with autism have difficulty verbally communicating, that is not to be misconstrued as being any less intelligent than their peers. However, their language and social problems can make that intelligence harder to discover.

I never kept the fact that my daughter has autism from her. When she was younger she would ask me why she was afraid all of the time. She wanted to know why she could not put words together as easily as other children could. She begged to know why she could not make friends. She wanted to, she just did not know how.

Every step of the way I told her, "It's the autisms. Austisms is that scary feeling you get every time you want to do something, but don't know how."

"I'm going to help you fight the autisms," I repeated to her, every time her eyes reached out to grab hold of mine to gain strength.

And I did. I hosted playdates; took her out constantly to be among different people; scripted plays with her younger brother in order to get her to act out parts. I sang more songs at the top of my lungs, banged more drums with neighborhood kids, and played dress-up for hours on end to create situations where she could learn through play. Any opportunity I could create where she could use and practice her language, I did. I still do.

And everyone got in on the act--other kids, family, neighbors...everyone whose life intersected with hers. From where I stand now, the enormity of the results is immeasurable. The depths of their understanding my lifeline.

But any parent will tell you that in the best of circumstances, adolescence wreaks havoc on a child's brain. Whether a child is autistic or typical, adolescence is a slippery slope for both parents and children when the psychological landscape turns into a roller coaster. In many cases, mental illness and psychological disorders of adulthood begin to manifest themselves during adolescence.

Can a child with autism succumb to mental illness as well? Like any other child, yes. But to assign blame to autism as being the underlying cause for a severe emotional disturbance or mental disorder is to misrepresent the complexities of an already misunderstood condition.

Autism is stigmatizing.

Autism is misunderstood.

Autism is bone-crushingly exhausting.

Autism is heartbreaking. 


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