Monday, December 24, 2012

Post-Newtown Focus on the Mentally Ill

I knew a family a while back with a teenager who, among other things, appeared to be grappling with high-functioning autism or Aspergers' or similar ASD syndrome.  Shane was a very sensitive, loyal sort of boy that wanted friends but due to his social awkwardness had difficulty getting the friendships that he craved.  At an early age, his oddness had made him an obvious target to bullies.  While he was not a weakling, he had no friends to take his cause, and he was always outnumbered.  I've since found that his story isn't close to being isolated among those with an ASD or ASD-related symptoms.  At any rate, as much as he craved social ties, he harbored a lot of anger and low self-esteem from having his dignity taken from him in regular beatings at school.  (Funny, where were all the people concerned with bullying back then?)  The lack of social connection only reinforced the negative feelings of those that made him feel worthless.

One day Shane was walking on the sidewalk (as an older teenager--larger, tougher, and much less of an obvious target), a jerk on a bicycle ran him off the sidewalk and not only didn't apologize but insulted him.  Whatever transpired, it apparently brought back the feelings of being bullied.  He had set up a lawn chair by the mailbox and was sitting there with an axe leaning against the mailbox by the time his father was made aware that there was some situation brewing.

Something I have always wondered about was whether the axe was specifically meant for intimidation or whether it had a more disturbing purpose.  I think that this young man, in a very emotional sense, was not sure whether he was defending his dignity or his life; and this may have been heading in a terrible direction.  At any rate, his father came and talked to him and, having got the story from him, set him upon a different course for reclaiming his dignity.  They found out where the jerk lived and knocked on his door.  This jerk's father was clearly embarrassed and apologetic and seemed to imply that this was not the first situation of the sort that had come up.  The jerk eventually showed himself but at a distance and even though he was invited to work out his hostility in a fair fight he refused and slunk away.

This seemed to satisfy the otherwise troubled Shane, and a similar situation never arose.

I recalled this recently while reading Maggie Gallagher's column about the dark side of autism.  Personally I don't think that this young man was ever in any danger of hurting random strangers, let alone small defenseless children.  He would probably have been deemed a danger under the sorts of risk-flagging that have been discussed post-Newtown.  But this is not to say that Gallagher doesn't have a point about the playing down of the dark side of autism.  When the focus is on not marginalizing those with ASDs (a worthy cause), it becomes natural for many journalists to advance the cause via filtering of the news.  If the preferred narrative is that those with ASDs are just "differently-abled" and valuable members of society, then it doesn't help to confuse matters with contradictory information that hurts the cause.  Or at least, I think this is how many journalists process reality for us.

I disagree with such thinking, but I also think that there was an isolation at work behind the rage.  Without the family support in his life, I think Shane could have been manipulated by a true sociopath, his social rejection channeled into a total retaliation against "society", the way that Klebold manipulated Harris leading up to the Columbine massacre.   Fortunately, I think the unconditional love of his family gave him a center that inoculated him from moral anarchy.  A lot of the violence we see may be a coupling of natural (but largely preventable) rage coupled with modern "blame society" rejection of personal accountability.  If enough wrong has been done to me, my violence is understandable and excusable.  Hey, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.  It's all relative.  Or so we're told.

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