My mother's favorite Christmas carol is a haunting elegy for children who perished in another massacre of the innocents, long ago. The catechism taught us that Herod's men slaughtered all the baby boys in an attempt to kill the prophesied newborn king of the Jews.
The Coventry Carol serves in stark contrast to other carols to remind us that even in a time of great joy, the life of every child is a blessing to be celebrated, and the death of any child is an unimaginable loss. For over two thousand years these children have been remembered.
Now a new slaughter of the innocents has claimed 27 more victims. All of us who have watched in horror can only pray for a way to comfort those families directly affected, who must continue to endure this unimaginable nightmare. We read of the unbelievable heroics of the teachers at Sandy Hook who gave their lives to save other people's children, and our hearts break at the loss of them and the tiny children they defended. December 14 may become a day like 9/11, which we will forever remember and ask each other "Where were you when..."
Like millions of other parents here in Connecticut and around the world, we sent our children off to school on Monday morning with a lump in our throat and a fervent prayer to please, not let it happen to them, too.
All of us want quick and easy answers. All of us want to be able to think that if we just do something, anything, that we can guarantee that it could never happen again. It is appropriate to rekindle discussion of guns, especially assault weapons and ammunition clips as something we should control. It is appropriate to try to find any way to increase school security that will let our children be safer. It is appropriate to look at access to mental health services and resources for the most troubled among us. The entire planet is grieving with us here in Connecticut. Any ideas that can truly help will be welcomed.
But we also must take care that in our zeal to find solace, this slaughter does not result in the victimization and discrimination of any more innocents.
The media circus that always materializes around such tragedies provided those of us craving a quick answer an endless stream of information and speculation. Much of the earliest reports were contradictory, and even wrong. But impressions come from what we hear, and no amounts of retractions or corrections will overcome an unconscious impression made in a quick scan of a story, especially if the retractions or corrections are never seen.
One such assumption has been made about the shooter in the Sandy Hook massacre. It has been widely reported that he suffered from Asperger's syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder. Whether this is true or not, simply stating that an individual with Asperger's syndrome committed an act of unspeakable violence can create fear in the minds of many people. They can become afraid of anyone with Asperger's or any autism spectrum disorder. It can be tempting to think that if we just isolate people with an identified disorder, we will be safe. Some people may convince themselves that keeping these people away from our children and communities are is better for them and for the community at large. It may provide a sense of security (however false) to many people who may not know very much about autism spectrum disorders. It could lead to blanket requests for diagnoses from authorities and employers, anxious to keep people safe. Public dispersal of such information might even be requested. Even if this information were not made public, the descriptions (most woefully inadequate and many downright wrong) of the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome flying around the internet may lead people to “diagnose” their neighbors and others in the community as potential mass murderers.
We see people with ASD in the community more now than ever before. The incidence of these disorders has soared. As more of these children are born and educated in the same schools as their typically developing brothers and sisters, they become more openly members of our communities. In recent years, acceptance of "neurodiversity" has become more common, especially for those people with ASD that are functioning independently and are employed, tax-paying members of society.
Any time a group is singled out on the basis of a condition they are born with, be it an autism spectrum disorder, race, or other characteristics, the seeds are sown for more suffering. The facts that rarely make the news are that people with ASD are no more likely to commit crimes than the rest of us, and in fact are far more likely to be victims of crimes. But these facts may not make people feel safer. It may just increases uncertainty in the face of an understandably desperate need to feel that children are safe.
I worried about our two youngest children as they went to school on Monday. I also worry about one of my older children, who was diagnosed with an ASD (one even more severe than Asperger’s) many years ago. She was one the rare few with this disorder who was able to receive the specialized therapy she needed to recover enough that she is no longer handicapped. She is a brilliant and accomplished young woman, and I could not be more proud of her. She is the one who makes sure that everyone in the family knows what is going on with everyone else. She has rescued various siblings from their questionable choices more times than I can count. She has stood by, quiet and unassuming, reliable, loving, and with a finely honed sense of ethics, while her typically developing friends have done things she has had the wisdom to forgo. I can trust her with our lives, our children's lives, and anything else we have of value. She is an innocent who has done more good with her life in a little over twenty years than most of us ever achieve. But her medical records are still in various files. Will this tragedy result in her employers being able to find out her history? Will she face discrimination as she advances her career? Will her neighbors and friends become afraid of her even though she has never done anything remotely frightening?
Her exceptional history has been part of what she is. Even though she is no longer handicapped, she and others like her could be identified and discriminated against as a result of the best of intentions, by those who could make hasty decisions in an effort to keep our children safe.
So as a parent, I fear not just for our youngest children still in school, but for her as well. The world needs more people like my daughter. We are all diminished if we judge her on an accident of birth rather than the remarkable things she has done and continues to do. We are all of us enriched when we embrace our differences and find ways to build stronger communities because of them.