As I write this, I am reading a story in the Star Tribune, with detailed descriptions of the shooter in Connecticut. The more I read about this tragic story, the more saddened I get -- not just because of what happened, but for a much scarier reason: I identify with the shooter.
I was that child, the one "medicated for behavioral problems." I have Asperger's, as did the shooter. I was intelligent and I felt very nervous in social situations -- and still do. My parents divorced when I was turning 12.
Two major differences jump out at me. I tried to make myself understood by others; Lanza reportedly did not, for whatever reason, seek to identify with others. He alienated himself from his peers and tried to go through life unnoticed, so he did not have to deal with the pain of being misunderstood. The other major difference is that he decided to do something tragic and drastic to be understood.
I am not a psychologist or a professional, but I understand why this man did what he did, what led to this situation. I am in no way justifying Lanza's actions. He chose to alienate himself, probably because he was pushed so hard to do the opposite. People like me have a natural inclination to rebel against what we are told unless the reasoning is explained to us. We are skeptical. We do not want to be duped, because chances are we are duped enough by our peers whether intentionally or unintentionally.
I do not think he knew how to reach out to people for help, even if he wanted to. He was apparently vastly intelligent in books and academic pursuits, but totally clueless in other arenas. He probably put on his older brother's name tag because he wanted to be successful like his brother is at relationships and other things.
People with Asperger's and autism do not want to be left alone, even if we give that message to others. There are those we do not get along with and do not understand to the point that we fear interacting with them at all, and by those people we should be left alone.
However, we should not be left alone. To quote the article in Saturday's paper: "They weren't surprised. They said he always seemed like he was someone who was capable of that because he just didn't really connect with our high school, and didn't really connect with our town."
I'm sorry, but that is a poor excuse. No one in his community, it seems, tried to reach out to him. I am someone who came out of the very same background this man did, and my choices in life and my conclusions are vastly different. His interactions with people were probably so labeling and stereotyped that even when the reactions from the people around him were not negative, they were perceived that way because of what he faced in the past.
Obviously, the news outlets and society need to know what people on the autism spectrum want and need. Autism is not something that makes people capable of mass shootings. Bullying and ignoring people with autism, however, do. It isolates them and it singles them out, and we absolutely abhor being singled out, even for praise. Our biggest dream is to be useful and to be just like everyone else.
We need to know that sometimes, when it comes to social situations, you don't get it either. We need to know that, even if you don't always understand us, you want to understand us. We need to feel like you are reaching out to us more than we reach out to you because we feel like we're bothering you and wearing out our welcome. We need to know that you think we are intelligent and worth having around. We want to play the hero and be a big influence, and we will seek that out however we can.
Autism is not a developmental disorder. It is a gift, and that gift often makes us misunderstood, and we further that because most of us are not good at expressing ourselves clearly. Writing is about the only way I can do that with clarity, and that is true for many.
Please. If you know someone with autism or Asperger's, try to understand them. Treat them as equals. Chances are, they're a lot smarter than you in areas you are completely clueless about. But you also know a lot of things they don't.
Lanza did not know that there are people in this world worth having around as friends, people who could have understood him, and acted upon the mistaken belief that he had to do something big or his life would not count for much.
You could help.
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Jeff White lives in St. Paul.