I am (not) Adam Lanza.
I apologize to all of my friends and family members who are reading this instead of hearing it directly from my mouth. Please understand that I do not have the time or the emotional energy to call each one of you and explain the hardest years of my life and the difficulties I have endured recently. I don’t like to share my personal life in a public forum, I was always taught to be strong, and to not show weakness. I would have most likely continued the hard work of ‘passing’ but for last week’s shooting in Connecticut and the very public debate about autism and mental illness that it has sparked. So, here it is:
I have Asperger’s.
When I was 27 years old, I was in the process of filling out graduate school applications when I began to struggle with learning difficulties, anxiety and social confusion. I have always had these issues, but I never really thought about what they might be labeled. I grew up in a working class family; my parents worked hard but never made it to college. They did their best raising four kids on my father’s police officer salary. Mental health and learning difficulties were never things we discussed. In 7th grade I was sent to a public alternative school because I was having issues in the mainstream school. At this alternative school, I was able to work at my own pace, and the teachers were trained to work with students with learning and behavioral issues.
I graduated by the skin of my teeth, and moved to California when I turned eighteen. I didn’t think about my difficulties much until I started college. When I was twenty-three I began studying at a local community college. I would have pursued a one year certificate in music, were it not for discovering a love of and talent for philosophy. Four years later I graduated from Portland State University in Portland, Oregon and set out to apply to philosophy graduate programs. But I found the application process very strange and difficult. Most of my professors expected something of me that I didn’t understand; a kind of academic professionalism that I had never been taught and could not pick up on my own. I failed my GRE practice test with a devastating score of 275 on the math section. When I looked at the equations I wanted to cry. I did cry. I couldn’t understand them. The stress of the process led me to the student health and counseling center where I worked with a psychologist to try to better understand my difficulties. He set up an appointment for psychological testing at a local office. There, for one week straight I took IQ tests, assessments and mental health questionnaires. I spoke to the doctor about my family history and school history. She diagnosed me with Asperger’s, as well as major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, a non-verbal learning disability and a learning disability called dyscalculia, (like dyslexia, but for math).
I cannot begin to describe the difficulty I faced during that time. In addition, I was without health insurance, paying out of pocket for the testing and without the means to pay for any further counseling or therapy. With the support of my sister and some good friends, I pulled through. I began eating well and exercising, set up a rigid schedule and eventually, after almost two years and a lot of luck, I feel like I am back on track.
But I didn’t finish my graduate applications. Most of the professors did not tolerate my difficulties because to them it must have seemed like laziness, or lack of talent. I did manage to become admitted into a liberal studies master’s degree which I am completing online. Through this program I have been studying disability and the philosophy of mental health and psychology. My research interests have taken on a hugely personal meaning. My work has been given a context, and real life stakes. I have been lucky enough to meet some new, caring professors who are understanding and encouraging me to hone my skills. Next winter I will be applying for admittance into a PhD program in philosophy.
I am not going to insult your intelligence by assuring you that I am not violent, especially towards children, because I know that none of you would never assume this to be true. In fact, for the last ten years, my main source of income has come from my work as a nanny. I’ve worked with several families who I have come to love and cherish, children who I would immediately, without thought, give my life for if they were ever in harm’s way. Anyone who has ever loved a child can understand this sentiment. The thought of so many families, just like my beloved ones, losing their beautiful children, is absolutely heartbreaking to me.
A recent interview involved an autism “expert,” in the context of Adam Lanza’s violent actions in Connecticut, asserting that people on the autism spectrum have “something missing in the brain.” http://www.mediaite.com/tv/piers-morgan-quack-says-people-with-autism-lack-empathy-somethings-missing-in-the-brain/
This man is implying an odd standard for judging who is and who is not fully human. This seems darkly inappropriate. I just spent the last two years of my life struggling and striving for understanding, reaching out for and receiving compassion, and sometimes receiving bigotry, misunderstanding, cruelty, and having to come to terms with that as well. What could be more human than this struggle? It’s true that some things are difficult for me. But it is also true that I have many gifts and talents that are unique and beneficial to me. Autism is very mysterious, in the sense that it is still not medically understood. However, we do know that people on the spectrum are not “missing something in the brain.” Autism, like any disability or different ability, is often as much a gift as it is a difficulty. What is most difficult about autism, for many of us, is the way difference is regarded within our communities, families, and schools. This is the factor that determines levels of impairment, to a degree.
I am writing this because I can’t stand the thought that Adam Lanza supposed autism spectrum disorder is being continually debated by the media. Every time I log onto facebook I see another total misunderstanding of autism, another ignorant sounding comment about mental health and its role in this terrible tragedy. It seems that overnight, everyone with a computer has become qualified to make mental health and disability assessments. Over the last couple years, I have met dozens of adults and children on the autism spectrum, each one different from the next, save one thing: we have all faced the stigma associated with difference. We all carry the pain of being called weird or nervous. Now these same qualities are being used to describe Adam Lanza, in the context of his Asperger’s and associated with a violent crime. It doesn’t take a genius to understand what happens next. People will begin to further fear and misunderstand those on the spectrum and this will lead to even further difficulties for people like us.
One day, I hope to have my own children. I know that more likely than not, they will have some of my own difficulties as well as their own unique gifts. And I will love them just as they are. I will teach them to have the courage to be exactly who they are, no matter how difficult and scary that will be. I do not want to worry about them, or about the millions of existing children or adults with autism who face a daily battle to be themselves in a world that expects sameness as a condition for social acceptance.
Please, share this, and talk to your children, family, and friends about the importance of being a caring, compassionate person who accepts differences as part of human diversity. And please, do not reduce Adam Lanza’s behavior to his supposed status as a member of the autism community. We do not know the details of his personal and social life, nor the complicated circumstances that led him to kill others and then himself. If we are going to understand the enormity of this terrible event, we have to open our minds and hearts, and become more understanding and empathetic.
When I mourn the loss of these children and adults, I do not attribute it to the work of a monster, nor an act of evil. To do so would be short-sighted, reductive, and totally insensitive. We have every right to be angry, terrified and devastated by this event, but in addition, we have a duty to understand Adam and all of the aspects of his life that led to this final terrible end. We also have a duty to our still living children—both typical children and neurodivergent—to have better discussions about what has happened. I will not tell you what you should conclude about these events, but I will ask you to not conclude anything that equates difference with fear and violence. To do that would be an act that endangers the lives of differently abled children and adults everywhere. It is within our power to make sure that no one else suffers unnecessarily.