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1) Asperger’s is not a mental illness. It is a developmental disability.

2) Asperger’s is not associated with violence. At all. In any way. In fact, someone with Asperger’s is far *less* likely to commit a violent crime than someone without it.

3) A person who commits mass murder is not automatically/by default mentally ill (much as some might wish it so).

4) The mentally ill are many times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime than a perpetrator.

5) Drawing spurious armchair-diagnosing conclusions about a person’s mental health and his or her violent acts, without evidence, harms the mentally ill.

Added, per Liz Ditz‘s edits: Persons with developmental disabilities are more likely to be the VICTIM of a crime than a perpetrator. And drawing spurious armchair-diagnosing conclusions about a person’s developmental status and his or her violent acts harms those with developmental disabilities.

“All features that characterize Asperger’s syndrome can be found in varying degrees in normal population.” – Lorna Wing, 1981, a quote provided by Steve Silberman

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In addition to worrying about our children’s health and making the right decisions with regards to ear infections and vaccines and sleep and the such, we parents obviously have a pretty hefty responsibility in teaching our children how to think about the world and other people in it. That includes helping them understand, interact with and think about people who are different from them, including differences in physical health, mental health and developmental disabilities, such as having autism.

When tragedies occur, we must also help children process the event and provide them with the appropriate lenses through which to see the incident, if not understand it since such things are rarely truly “understood.” It is absolutely essential that in doing these two things, we do not allow our children to absorb inaccurate and damaging ideas, propagated by an irresponsible media machine and blogosphere as well as countless Internet comments, about links between those disabilities and such violent acts when no evidence exists for such a link.

Following the Newtown shootings, and now following this most recent shooting in Santa Barbara, the news has been contaminated with spurious connections between the shootings and the mental and/or developmental status of the shooter. The former can certainly be relevant when kept in context and when confirmed (rather than springing from dozens of online amateur armchair-diagnosing). The latter is irrelevant.

There were reports that Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, had Asperger’s, which no longer “officially” exists in the new DSM-5 but is considered on the spectrum of autism disorders. That diagnosis has since been legitimately questioned, but even if true, it is not relevant to his committing a crime. Now the Santa Barbara shooter has been supposedly labeled with Asperger’s by his family’s attorney, who then retracted the statement and then clarified in an LA Times story: “Astaire said Elliot had not been diagnosed with Asperger’s but the family suspected he was on the spectrum, and had been in therapy for years. He said he knew of no other mental illnesses, but Elliot truly had no friends, as he said in his videos and writings.”

1010592_495724187166238_435361941_nNote that the writer here erroneously wrote “no other mental illnesses,” as though Asperger’s were a mental illness. It’s not. Further, any news articles which speculate on Elliot Rodger’s mental health history would be violating the new guidelines issued by the Associated Press following the Newtown shooting. Such speculation, as that link explains, is further stigmatizing and damaging to those with mental illness, who happen to commit only about 4% of all violent crimes. That speculation is also damaging and stigmatizing to those with developmental disabilities, such as autism, when the developmental disorder is inappropriately linked to violent crimes.

As I wrote above and on my Facebook timeline, Asperger’s and/or autism spectrum disorders are NOT mental illnesses. They are also NOT linked to violence. Mental illness itself is NOT linked to violent crime in and of itself. That does not mean we should ignore the mental health status of mass shooters, nor does it mean we do not need better mental health services in this country (we do), but we should also pay attention to the only common denominator that IS evident in these incidents – that they are carried out with the same instruments. For example, the presence of a gun in the home greatly increases the risk of a violent death in that home. Hence my involvement with Parents Against Gun Violence.

Folks with much more knowledge and information that I have on this topic have already written about it at length, so I’ve provided below some essential reading when it comes to the intersection (or lack thereof) of mental illness, autism and violence. Emily Willingham, in particular, has written some of the best pieces on this, including this, just days before the Santa Barbara shooting:

“Evidence-based studies examining established commonalities among people who commit crimes like this can be enlightening, but wild speculation and retrospective diagnosing do nothing useful and can cause considerable harm to law-abiding people who carry any of these labels, whether autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or others that have been suggested. Autistic people are people, and like other people, some tiny percentage of them can engage in violent behaviors, although overall, they “almost never” target anyone outside their families, plan the violence, or use weapons. There is no single or even group of diagnoses that explains or predicts the horrific behavior of mass murderers. And some unsupported assumptions about autism–such as the continued canard that autistic people lack empathy (they do not)–help no one and certainly don’t guide us to way to prevent such tragedies.”

A similar piece about the same irresponsible study is by an autistic disability rights activist.

The same activist also discusses the inappropriateness of linking the Santa Barbara shooting with Asperger’s or autism.

Dr. Willingham discusses the inaccurate beliefs that autistics do not have empathy and that they are dangerous.

An excellent piece from a father about many of the misunderstandings about Asperger’s.

 

Facts

The disabled, including autistics, are more likely to be the victim of sexual assault than the non-disabled.

This study shows that those with autism spectrum disorders and/or obsessive compulsive disorder are less likely to commit a violent crime than typically developing individuals.

A statement from the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee at the US Department of Health and Human Services: “There is no scientific evidence linking ASD with homicides or other violent crimes. In fact, studies of court records suggest that people with autism are less likely to engage in criminal behavior of any kind compared with the general population, and people with Asperger syndrome, specifically, are not convicted of crimes at higher rates than the general population (Ghaziuddin et al., 1991, Mouridsen et al., 2008, Mouridsen, 2012).”

This excellent fact sheet provides the evidence for the following statements:

  • The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
  • The public is misinformed about the link between mental illness and violence.
  • Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination
  • The link between mental illness and violence is promoted by the entertainment and news media.

Other facts available at the Twitter hashtag #autismfacts.

A version of this post also appears at Red Wine & Apple Sauce and on the Parents Against Gun Violence blog.

I’m sitting in Starbucks with a lengthy to-do list on New Year’s Day. I was going to make resolutions, but I don’t have time for that at the moment. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be back home in Illinois preparing for the year and some big changes. My husband is already there while I remain in Texas at my parents with my son and my two dogs, one of whom is the reason I’m still here and the reason I’m writing this. See, I can’t work. I came here intending to, but instead I’m trying unsuccessfully to distract myself until I just started crying and crying and realized I have to write this first, even though this is unlikely to help either. I’m kinda a wreck, just pretending not to be so I can get through each day.

Casper is on the left, Ghost on the right.

Casper is on the left, Ghost on the right.

See, 2013 started out as a pretty good year. In fact, it’s been a hell of a year. We settled into our new home in Illinois. We bought our first house. I started teaching as a university adjunct professor, as I’d wanted to do for many years. I made a lot of new friends and a lot of new business contacts. I got published in some of the publications I’ve been wanting to write for for quite a while, and my journalism career is starting to take off. My mom/science/health blog has seen great success, including a viral post that broke the site for a while but also put me on a lot of people’s radar. I signed a book deal for a parenting book I’m both excited and nervous to be writing. Meanwhile, our family took our first vacation abroad in a number of years, my son’s first out of the country. I used to travel abroad every year, so skipping it for four years was tough until our nice week in Costa Rica. Shortly after that, I found out I was pregnant, which was planned and a source of stress until it happened. All pretty good stuff, and some significant life milestones.

Then, not too far into the second half of the year, it was as though the universe started making up for all the good stuff. Fortunately, the pregnancy has continued to progress healthily, so I am grateful for that. I have to say that first because I do recognize my fortune in the midst of the list I’m about to run through. Our new home required very expensive but absolutely necessary foundation work that nearly cleared out our emergency savings. I went through some crap at a job that isn’t appropriate (or worthwhile) to go into here but which was traumatic and deeply disheartening. I also experienced some serious prenatal depression and ongoing morning sickness that coincided with those events. The events also led me to set an ambitious and exhausting travel agenda in the fall with four conferences in six weeks. These were tough enough, but on the way home from the fourth, I received news that a close uncle had unexpectedly died following a car accident. Another weekend of travel was tacked on for a difficult event.

Not long after returning from that, just as I was hoping to return to some semblance of “normal,” my son became ill with a fever for several days. Not long after, I became ill. I’ve lost track of the number of times each of us became ill then – fevers, vomiting, pink eye for me and other fun times – but it was sort of a back-and-forth trade off. Then in early December after dropping off my son at daycare, barely a week after I thought I had recovered from what was supposed to be pink eye, I was driving down the highway when my eyes involuntarily closed and stung with pain. I immediately pulled off to the shoulder, but those were the first symptoms of what was diagnosed a day or so later at keratoconjunctivitis. It required several days of sitting in the dark without an ability to work, see light, drive or use any screen-based technology. I couldn’t even read. I couldn’t drive for more than two weeks, and during the second week much of what I saw was distorted by blurriness as my eyes slowly recovered. (I still must rely on outdated glasses instead of my contacts.)

That experience led right up until we headed to Texas for the holidays. The holidays have been nice for the most part, especially the gluttonous gastronomic holiday my husband and I have taken after being deprived of good food while living in Peoria the past year. And that brings us up to now. The past few months have been a blur of travel, illness, tragedy, depression and frustration, and I was so looking forward to the new year, as though the arbitrary change of days from one year to the year might actually hold some significance. Regardless, the universe had another trick up its sleeve.

I’ll just copy and paste this part from my Facebook feed since it’s difficult to write about anyway, and this post is a pathetic attempt at catharsis so I might be able to get some work done. Along with the photo here, I posted the following:

My son holds Casper while Ghost is beside him at the vet.

My son holds Casper with Ghost beside him at the vet.

“At this point (yesterday afternoon), we didn’t know how things would turn out. The vet literally said (twice) it would take a miracle for Ghost to pull through. Our 6.5 lb dog had eaten a full ounce bar of rat poison he’d found, and it was bromethalin, which attacks the central nervous system and kills with brain swelling; there’s no antidote or treatment. It was too late for stomach pumping: he’d eaten it at night without our realizing it and by morning, when we rushed him to the vet, he had unrelenting tremors and couldn’t walk. All we could do was transfer him to the 24 hr hospital for round-the-clock observation and regular doses of a med to help drain the liquid in his brain. Yesterday was really rough for all of us, including Casper, his littermate and companion since birth, who D’s holding. Today we found out Ghost lived through the night and was able to eat a small amount of food. He can’t walk at all or move much, but the worst appears to be over. The brain swelling is on its way down, and the vet is optimistic about his recovery. After he’s released from doggie ICU, we’ll have to syringe-feed him and inject liquids subcutaneously. So I’ll be in Texas a little longer than we planned.” More »

Just about every phase of my has involved a tradeoff somewhere, which is probably true for most people. When I moved to Peoria, I gave up the heat of Texas summers (thank God!) for the cold of Midwest winters (so far I’m fine with that). I also gained the opportunity to really focus on my writing – but at the expense, for various reasons, of my photography. snowflake Tara Haelle Midwest

For now, I’m mostly okay with that too, but I still need my photo fix, including a bit of creativity and exploration. Therefore, when I read on a colleague’s blog post about her attempts to photograph snowflakes using a macro lens on her iPhone, I was intrigued. The photos were pretty cool, and the Easy-Macro lens Karyn mentioned as her favorite was only $15. I figured I’d try it.

The lens arrived late last week, just in time for a snowstorm’s arrival here in Illinois. But the snow started falling too late in the day to have enough outside available light for the iPhone camera. Fortunately, it snowed again yesterday and today, so I had the chance to try out the Easy-Macro lens – basically a lens of about 1 cm in diameter embedded in a blue rubber band that wraps around your mobile device. Real high tech, right? Well, low tech doesn’t mean low quality, it turns out. More »

I took the bus to St. Jude’s Catholic School in first grade, but as happens sometimes, I missed the bus one day. No worries – my dad happened to be off work that day and was able to take me to school. The easiest mode of transportation? I rode in the sidecar of his motorcycle for the brief few miles to the school. This was no big deal to me. I’d ridden in the sidecar and on the back of the bike plenty of times with my little arms wrapped around my dad and my heavy helmet weighing on my head. I’d grown up around Dad’s motorcycle.

Dad and I danced, naturally, at my wedding. Photo by Matt Valentine.

But my classmates? Yea, I guess not too many 6-year-olds get dropped off at Catholic School in the sidecar of a motorcycle. For a week, I was the smallest celebrity in the school. The big, scary and popular EIGHTH-GRADERS were even talking to little first-grade me. The nuns gave me a funny sort of look. I was a good student, but I had, you know, arrived at school… on a MOTORCYCLE. I’m not sure they knew what to think. Other than basking in the sudden popularity that week, I didn’t think much of it. That was Dad.

When I was in Brownie Girl Scouts, our troop “cookie mom” was also Dad. During my elementary school years, Dad took us out on the boat, out fishing and to the deer lease, where he taught my sister and I how to drive a truck and how to shoot – and respect – guns.

As I entered adolescence, friends, school and my own activities took on a bigger role in my life, and I was probably always a little closer to my mom, but there were still activities that were very clearly opportunities for just Dad and me, such as the years he coached my softball team when no one else would step up to bat. Today, I continue to consult Dad on the stuff Dad knows – be it related to long-distance trips, home-buying or – believe it or not – sewing. We have had our clashes (let’s not get into politics), but the early experiences we shared forged an important bond.

Not surprisingly, my experiences are part of a common thread in the lives of young girls. A new qualitative study (pdf) asked 43 daughters and 43 fathers (though not related to one another) to write about the “turning points” in their father-daughter relationships. The authors, Elizabeth Barrett and Mark Morman at Baylor University, asked the study participants specifically to write about the turning points in closeness in their relationship with their father or daughter. More »

So, it’s high time I got this blog rolling. I already blog about health and science news for parents and families over at Red Wine & Apple Sauce, but I am constantly finding there are other things I want to tell people about, whether it’s science-related, political, personal, or it’s just some thoughts or commentary related to the news of the day.

That’s me, in a past “terra incognita,” India. I backpacked there solo for five weeks in 2005, and this town of Bundi was among my favorite places there.

Therefore, welcome to Tara Incognita. The name, an obvious play on “terra incognita,” alludes to the fact that this blog will likely roam all over the place – it’s unknown ground. My greatest strength in life is also my greatest weakness: I’m interested in everything. I actually find it a relief when I stumble upon something about which I can sincerely say, “Meh. Not interested.” That’s a rare occurrence indeed. This curiosity and thirst for information is great as a journalist and a teacher – it’s no surprise that I’m both – but it also means my attention gets split and it’s difficult for me to immerse myself in one thing too deeply for too long. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Along that vein, expect this blog to cover a range of topics, from albatrosses (literal and metaphorical) to zoo excursions with my toddler son. An incomplete list of the stuff I might cover on this blog…

  • Cool science stuff
  • Cool brain stuff
  • Intersections of politics and science or religion and science
  • Political ramblings (with some semblance of a point, though)
  • Children’s and young adult literature
  • Education news and learning theories news
  • Anything related to SHARKS
  • Parenting stories
  • Reviews of great (or crappy) books I read
  • Teaching stories
  • Photography news
  • Travel stories… and so on

It will take a while to build up an audience when I blog about such eclectic stuff, but hopefully people will chime in. It’s much more fun to discuss stuff with others than mumbling out loud to yourself in the corner.