FLORIDA SHOOTER HAS AUTISM: HEADLINE OR HYPE?
Author: Randall A. Lavender Ii
Randall A. Lavender II is the Director of The Sensory Harmonization Institute. He enjoys working with parents and assisting them become empowered in treating their own child's autism symptoms by utilizing Sensory Harmonization treatment methods.
In the wake of this week’s mass shooting in Florida, people are continuing to ask why these tragic events are recurring. We now know some information about the Florida school shooter, including that he may have been diagnosed with autism among other things. Many people reading the articles and watching news clips concerning the Florida school shooting may not understand what they mean when they say “the shooter was autistic.” This article is written with the intention of spreading awareness about autism and what it means for events like these.
Nikolas Cruz’s former class mates have mentioned to police that Cruz was seen as a smaller kid and bullied. Besides his school life, Cruz’s family situation was also sensitive. His adoptive mother died not too long before the actual shooting occurred. One family member stated that she believed Cruz was “on medication to deal with his emotional fragility.” Former high school classmate Joshua Charo stated that “all he would talk about is guns, knives and hunting.”
We don’t need to delve much further to begin reaching the conclusion that this young man needed help and support; that much is certain. But what we really need to understand is disconnect from society and what that actually means. Further, how does this affect children with autism?
Many people reading the news are making connections that this Florida school shooter was diagnosed with autism. From this, they may draw inaccurate or simply uninformed conclusions about autism. We aim to remedy this.
Let’s start with some facts about autism and social dynamics. Many individuals with autism face challenges in the social realm. That is, they often find it difficult to form relations with others because they are unable to fully grasp the dynamics of a social situation including gestures, intent, meaning behind words, body language, and emotional displays. This puts individuals with autism at risk for developing a general disconnect with family and society. The ability to recognize and identify emotions is directly connected with communication and forming relations in one’s society. What do obtaining meaningful employment, having continued success in education, and having the ability to form personal relationships all have in common? They often rely heavily on his or her ability to communicate and understand the social dynamics of one’s immediate environment. Individuals with autism need continued support in these areas—support that they may or may not receive. Children and young adults often “age out” of many of the support systems they were once a part of. When they hit 18, 21 or 24 years of age, they are forced out of these programs. Some are ready but others are not. For the ones who are not, where do they go for help with little funds at their disposal? Many will be simply attempting to survive, yet alone thrive.
Children with autism may not be capable of fully grasping the finer details of what someone is meaning to say or their body language, but I would argue that they can fully understand ill intent and bullying. There is no doubt that they can also discriminate between hate and love. This finer understanding comes from an inner feeling, more so than a psychological dissection of words and language. They can understand feelings of loneliness and frustration. They know that they feel frustrated with communication because meeting their needs and desires require the ability to properly communicate.
Individuals with autism also have trouble communicating their own emotions, leaving them to feel boxed in without release. In children, this often displays itself in the form of tantrums which may include yelling, hitting, self-harming behaviors, or crying. In adults with autism, the frustration from not being able to communicate emotions come in other forms such as closing themselves off from friends and family, displaying a decreased desire to go to work or school, and feeling anxious and stressed out. This may leave one in a cycle of frustration.
But even in the more extreme cases of frustration, does this equal murder? My answer to that is a strong “No!” There are so many other factors to becoming a mass shooter which have nothing to do with autism. What prompted me to write this article were comments from people on forums and news articles hinting at gun violence being connected to individuals with autism.
Just Another Myth
With that said, let’s now consider a myth that some people have about autism. “Autism is associated with higher rates of gun violence and violent crimes.” There is no proof of a direct connection between autism and gun violence or murder. Individuals diagnosed with autism are no more likely to commit such crimes than non-autistic individuals. Anyone who has worked intensely with individuals with autism knows that the opposite is true. There is so much love and appreciation for the caring and compassionate attention that many autism providers supply. Do some mass shooters happen to have been diagnosed with autism? Yes, but that doesn’t connect autism as the prime culprit for the individual turning to violent crime because there are so many other factors involved. Are comorbidities being considered? How was the shooter’s home and family life? Was the shooter suffering from disconnection to society? How heavy were life’s stressors on that individual? Were there addictions involved? Substance abuse? These are certainly not excuses for murdering anyone, we are simply attempting to dig deeper into these situations. Every mass shooter has an individual situation that must be considered in detail. Singling out autism from the slew of possibilities and pointing to it as a main cause of mass shootings is a half-hearted attempt to understand why these events occur; but it sure is great for headlines!
A lack of early life support led Cruz to disconnection from society, family, relationships, and his own emotions. All of this culminated in a distorted view of reality. Several major pieces were missing from Cruz’s life which led to anger, hate, and social disconnect. If this started when he was young, it built up over the years and set the stage for a tragic event such as this one.
We see the opposite in so many cases where a child is diagnosed with autism. What we see is caring and involved parents doing anything they can to help their children. Parents of children with autism go the distance to offer support and form amazing connections with their children. To blame autism as the reason for Cruz’s deadly actions is not correct; it is an easy out.
We need to face the social issues that are occurring in our country and ask ourselves why these shootings keep recurring. Guns, policies, mental health, autism, jealousy, and hatred are all fine to discuss, but they also all fall short of the root problem. Social disconnect and the lack of having caring, empathetic relations with others are the root causes for many of these events. Feeling estranged to the world is NOT exclusive to individuals with autism!
Better is Good
How can we make things better? At risk individuals, such as those with autism (but not limited to), require programs and interventions which assist them with building upon their natural abilities. Building upon the person’s sense of self knowledge will naturally lead to improvements in social ability. Self-knowledge leads to confidence; confidence leads to success in many facets of our lives. Further, programs need to work with these individuals as soon as possible. Early intervention is the key to unlocking success as soon as possible. That being said, the programs have to be founded upon principles and knowledge which aim to build up the individual naturally. As an example, for individuals with autism, therapies and treatments with rigid expectations, simple memorization of words without meaning, and stressful routines do not serve them well. These things simply act as additional stressors to an already fragile inner life. Our programs must see the individual as a whole and truly seek to delve into their world—including any fears, frustrations, or anger. Children with autism know when someone cares. They also know whether or not something feels right.
Having the ability to connect with others in a meaningful way feels right. This is why programs for individuals with autism should include community involvement and volunteering. It is great for social immersion and relationship building. Getting children and adults away from the TV or computer screen is also a worthy goal. Immersion in nature is essential for a healthy perspective of one’s world. Programs can also incorporate touch therapy which builds upon the natural role of nurture in human connection.
Many of these basic issues can be met head on, but we as a society need to be open hearted about supporting programs and projects which serve individuals who feel deeply disconnected from society and others. The school bullying crisis is just one example. What about work place bullying, which has been called an epidemic by some? These topics along with the frequent occurrence of mass shootings in the United States is indicative of the growing disconnect between people, period.
Pointing out autism as the answer to why these tragedies occur is creating a scapegoat. We must heal these problems by finding the root cause. It’s time to encourage others to know one another more deeply through knowing themselves. But often times getting to know yourself, stems from getting to truly know others first.
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