These three places have one thing in common: Each has been the site of a recent mass shooting. While the loss of life at each has been horrific, the massacre in Newtown has struck an especially raw chord, as it took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The gunman shot his way into the school, and several teachers, the school principal and psychologist, and--sadly--twenty young children, were left dead in his wake.
Almost immediately, people were scrambling for answers: Who was the shooter? How did he manage to bring several weapons into a school? Why would he commit such a heinous, despicable act? The media has been very quick to provide answers to these questions--though not necessarily the right or responsible ones.
Within a day of the shooting, at least two major news outlets were speculating that the shooter--who turned the gun on himself--had some form of Asperger's Syndrome. So-called "experts" were trotted out onto programs such as Piers Morgan Tonight, and described Asperger's in the ill-informed fashion so typical of someone who does not know what they are talking about.
Even with only this, the fear and paranoia have begun to build, and with them, a creeping terror in the pit of my stomach for what this will all ultimately mean for people living on the autism spectrum.
A few nights ago, Linda Walder Fiddle, of the Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation, introduced me at the Hope Swings autism gala, where she was the invited honoree. During her acceptance speech, she referred to me as "one of the premier autism advocates in the country."
Yet I am sitting here now, trying to make sense of the Connecticut shootings and the media's irresponsibility in characterizing the shooter as having Asperger's Syndrome, and despite Linda's glowing accolades...I am at a loss. As I wade through the jumble of disbelief, sadness, heartache, and a steadily growing sense of fear, there is only one thing that I know for certain:
I won't go back.
I won't go back to believing that I am the only person going through what I am going through.
I won't go back to being that voiceless, frightened girl who thought that she was nothing and would never be anything.
I won't go back to when words like autism and Asperger's Syndrome had no recognition, no meaning...no place in the world.
Autism and Asperger's Syndrome do have meanings now...and that is what worries me. All too easily, a story on the news translates into frightened parents, children who believe their AS peers are killers, and a stigma that can never be fully shaken. All too easily, children and adults on the spectrum--traditionally far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators--can become victims anew, all as the result of a crime committed by a person who in no way represents the overwhelming majority of people living on the autism spectrum.
If I truly am that person that Linda described me as, then my role in this becomes clear:
I will fight.
I will stand up and speak out for as long as it takes to ensure that no person on the spectrum is unjustly marginalized, disenfranchised, railroaded, or otherwise bullied by a society that wants to demonize us.
I have to, because there is no other option. There's no reversing course, no shuttering us away in the dank institutions of the past....no undoing the work that so many of us have done.
I won't go back.