The shooting last month at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was so incredibly tragic, so incomprehensible, that it generated much talk about motive. And much of that talk centered on Asperger’s syndrome.
Asperger’s is a form of autism. It causes the brain to work differently from that of people who don’t have the condition. Those people are referred to as “neurotypicals.” Because they are in the majority, their brains are considered “typical.”
There were conflicting reports as to whether Adam Lanza, the shooter, had a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s, or whether it was speculation based on his reticent, nonsocial manner. In any case, he was definitely an oddball.
One can’t help being grateful to the media for running articles, essays, interviews, and blogs all pointing out that there is no connection between autism and violent behavior. Obviously Lanza had a multitude of problems, some of which led to his final, horrible act. But it wasn’t due to Asperger’s.
Oddball does not equal violence, which is something many, if not most, people don’t understand. This blog, whose overall theme is “No Justice for Aspies,” was inspired by the fate of James Ryo Kiyan. Unknowingly and unintentionally, Ryo harassed a coworker until he lost his job and ultimately his life, all due to a lack of understanding (including his own) about autism.
There is nothing wrong with an Asperger brain; it’s just different. Ryo had an IQ in the genius range, and was frustrated because he didn’t know what to do with it. His goals changed constantly and led nowhere. At college his goofy sense of humor was appreciated and enjoyed. After those days ended, he had almost no friends and no lasting relationships
He was in his forties when he realized his passion for maps. With that, he spent several years studying for a career in the field. It was a fairly new technology that made use of computers and satellites. Finally prepared, he landed the first job he applied for, with the Sullivan County (N.Y.) Division of Planning and Environmental Research. At last, after several decades wasted, he was on his way. He even had a few friends, or people he thought were friends. For the first time since college, he felt happy and fulfilled.
And then he ran afoul of the neurotypical world. For those who have followed this blog since its beginning, this is all a recap. To keep it short, Ryo thought he had a friend in a coworker, Miss Mall. He even dared think it might someday go beyond friendship. To Miss Mall, he was only a colleague, older than she, a little bit odd, and any relationship was far from her mind.
It’s true that he made a nuisance of himself. In his Aspergerian way he thought their friendship was more than it was. Being socially impaired, Aspies don’t see things as other people do.
It all began with his search for an apartment. Miss Mall offered to help and the two had lunch together. He enjoyed her company and planned what he thought would be a pleasant follow-up. It had to take place at her apartment because he shared a home with his mother. He offered to rent a movie and cook a meal at Mall’s place.
He could see at once that the idea appalled her. What she thought he intended, we don’t know. She may already have been leery of him because, as a person with Asperger’s, he was “different.” She told the authorities that she felt “uncomfortable” when Ryo looked at the books in her apartment. To most of us that would seem a non-threatening activity. It’s likely that she already felt uncomfortable because he was “different,” and she did not know what to expect from someone who was “different.”
He, being autistic and therefore socially awkward, could not relate to her view of things, or have a clue as to what went on in her mind. All he wanted was a friend. He kept after her, trying to apologize for his offer, which he acknowledged was inappropriate, at least in her eyes. He understood that much. He wanted her to understand that he understood, and he wanted to keep the friendship that he thought existed. She, in turn, wanted to keep things “professional.” In other words she wanted nothing more to do with him socially, but couldn’t say it. People with Asperger’s are not into nuances and euphemisms. They need things spelled out—or, as one therapist put it, “clear and concrete.”
Because it wasn’t put clearly and concretely, he continued in his effort to mend the fence, to explain that he meant no harm. Instead, his persistence itself made her feel threatened. She began carrying a knife and pepper spray and took her complaint to the powers that be. They, with their own lack of understanding as to the nature of autism, first suspended him for several weeks, then put him on trial, and finally dismissed him from the work he loved.
As Ryo himself said later, a simple mediation session would have explained everything to both sides, thereby ending the problem and saving the county much time and money. He suspected they really just wanted to be rid of him because he was “different.” In an earlier post I quoted Ryo’s cousin, Sharleen Inouye, who saw that difference in a more positive light: “His reality was different from the norm, but that was what made him unique.”
In that statement, Sharleen sums up the essence of autism: His reality was different from the norm . . . That is something most neurotypicals don’t grasp, along with the fact that a different reality does not automatically add up to violence. The frustrations of being autistic can sometimes result in explosions of anger, but it’s the quiet, sneaky, normal-appearing sociopaths who are far more likely to hurt someone. That has nothing to do with autism.
Ryo spent a year trying to find another job. In despair that he would ever lead a normal existence, he finally gave up and ended his life.
Recently I came across a quote by John T. Maltsberger, M.D.: “There’s no suffering greater than that which drives people to suicide; suicide defines the moment in which mental pain exceeds the human capacity to bear it. It represents the abandonment of hope.”
The only violence was to himself, because he had lost all hope. Even then, he chose a quiet way out.