UK readers of a certain age will remember the winter when a lot of trains were cancelled, and the train company (I believe it was still British Rail at the time) was widely ridiculed for blaming it on “the wrong kind of snow”. Well, as I learned many years later from a fascinating TV programme about snow, it really was the wrong kind of snow. It was a very fine, but very wet snow, which was blown into all the crevices of the undercarriages, clogging everything up and possibly even messing up the electrics. If it had been another kind of snow, the trains could have run all the same.
Like snow, Autism Awareness has been blowing all around us during the last month. And generally speaking, awareness of autism is certainly increasing. In fact, is there anybody out there who is not aware of it by now? It’s mentioned in the paper, on the news, on television and the web. But what sort of autism are people being made aware of? Could it be that a lot of this awareness is “the wrong kind of awareness”?
Driving home tonight after work, I listened to the news. One item was the trial of a student, who was found guilty of making a bomb and leaving it at a London Tube station. It had not gone off fully because of a faulty timer. I don’t want to discuss the student or his case here, not his guilt or innocence, not speculate about his motives. Rather I want to talk about the reporting of the case.
“A 20-year old with Asperger’s Syndrome” was how the radio report started. That, apparently, is the one thing we need to know about this person. Not “a 20-year old student” or “a student from London”. No, “Asperger’s Syndrome”, that’s what sets the scene. That’s what makes the listener think “aha, one of those”.
After a couple of sentences, we heard the opinion of a terrorism expert (although the crime was not classed as an act of terrorism). I paraphrase here what he said, because I don’t remember his exact words, but I promise you, I have not distorted the meaning (I listened to the news again an hour later, hoping to make notes, but the audio clip of the expert was not played again):
“People with mental health problems are often more prone or easier led to do that sort of thing” he intoned (words to that effect anyway).
First mistake. Autism is not a mental health problem, or mental health condition, if you want a more neutral phrase. But as long as it is diagnosed with the help of a manual of “mental disorders”, maybe you can’t blame people for getting this wrong. The student might have had a mental health condition as well as Asperger’s, although this was not reported anywhere. But Asperger’s in and of itself has nothing to do with mental health, nor does it (second mistake!) make people more prone to violence and bombmaking.
This second mistake is actually the big one. Apparently this student was “obsessed” with knives and guns, and this obsession, the expert went on, meant he was quicker to do what he did than “normal” people would have. Yes, he said “normal” – I distinctly remember that. Quite why they let a terrorism expert pontificate about the consequences of autism is something I couldn’t figure out.
Being more aware than ever and newly sensitised to this sort of thing, I was already pretty incensed. I could see the old autism=violence monster rear its head.
When I got home, I looked up the same story on a couple of other news sites for comparison. First, BBC News. Here, it was a couple of paragraphs into the story before autism was mentioned for the first time. This was no cause for relief though:
“Throughout the trial, Smith was seen smiling which jurors were told was part of his autism.”
OK, I kind of get where that might have come from. I don’t think anyone will deny that autistic people can have inappropriate expressions on their faces, for reasons that are too complicated to explain in a few words. (I myself smiled all the way through my grandmother’s funeral. And not because I was happy that she was dead.) The way it’s worded here, though, is useless at best and misleading at worst. Why would autism cause him to smile? Does autism make him not care about his crime? Or is autism affecting the facial muscles, causing some kind of rictus grin? What?
It gets worse.
“The Old Bailey was told that the student, who has an autistic spectrum disorder, had a keen interest in guns, bombs and other weapons, which may have been a function of his condition.”
There it is again. The shortcut, the inevitable connection between autism and violence. Do these reporters actually know what “a function” is? Do they realise that they make it sound as if an interest in guns is a logical consequence of having autism?
I next turned to the Guardian website, where this tired old fallacy was promptly repeated:
keen interest in weapons “which might have been connected to his condition”.
Elsewhere, the article “helpfully” explains that Asperger’s “can cause intense interest in a narrow range of topics and a lack of empathy” (I bet you’ve been waiting for that one!).
At this point I stopped looking. I reckoned my sample size was big enough for the point I wanted to make. Besides, I’m pretty sure that a report in any other mainstream news source would only have been a variation of the same.
The biggest problem is plain enough to see anyway, the one thought that gets repeated over and over: the “obsession” with guns and knives, which “normal” people don’t have, the “keen interest in weapons…a function of his condition”, and again “connected to his condition”. The one point which is hammered home, the one thought readers are bound to take away from this, if nothing else: autism leads to violence.
Even there I think I can discern some kind of origin story. Once upon a time, some expert somewhere talked about the intense, focussed interest that can be a feature of autism. They probably went on to say that when the subject of that interest is guns etc., it can be problematic. However, with repetition, this thought became simplified, a Chinese whispers effect set in, thinking got sloppy, and the result is that a few steps from the original train of thought got dropped. Instead of the longer chain:
Autistic people have intense, focussed interests > some might have an intense, focussed interest in weaponry > depending on the person and the circumstances, this can be problematic > sometimes such a person commits a violent crime
you get a shortened chain:
Autism > intense interest in weaponry > violent crimes
This shortened train of thought has been repeated so often and is now so ingrained that if a terrorist or mass killer can’t be identified as a “radical Islamist”, speculation about Asperger’s starts almost immediately. Not long ago the first conclusion people would have jumped to would have been schizophrenia, but I think autism has gained on it in the “spot the mental disorder” stakes.
This is what we are up against. This is the kind of information that is offered to consumers of mainstream newsmedia. And as a consequence, this is how they are made aware of autism.
The wrong kind of autism awareness, like the wrong kind of snow, gets everywhere. It swirls around us, it gets into all the nooks and crannies, where it sticks and clogs everything up, causing the wheels to stop turning and the thinking to become sloppy. It blocks the spaces where the right kind of awareness could enter. What we need is a good broom with strong, stiff bristles, to unstick the sticky wrong awareness and sweep it away, making space for a better kind of awareness. Because if awareness is the first step towards acceptance, we need to make sure it is a proper, functional step. Not the kind of vanishing step you can find at Hogwarts, that is not really there and traps your foot when you tread on it. No, we need a good, solid, snow-free and non-slippery foundation.
We need to get our brooms out and start sweeping. It’s not going to be easy. This stuff gets really compacted and will be hard to dislodge. Our muscles will hurt, and our fingers will get cold. But it will be worth it. I know a lot of people are already at it, I’m kind of late to the sweeping party actually. It’s an uphill struggle, but I’m prepared to contribute what I can.
Brooms at the ready!
(Image: a Norwegian freight train ploughing through deep snow. Photograph by David Gubler, http://www.bahnbilder.ch/picture/7697 via Wikimedia Commons)