Monday, April 23, 2007

Virginia Tech Killer's Alleged Autism

I know. I know. Why? Why give this crazy guy more press? Because I can't take comments like these from Huffington Post resident Autism expert Blake Fleetwood (full disclosure: I have an eight year old son who was diagnosed autistic at age two):

The first and most obvious of Cho's symptoms - from early on in his life - was that he was suffering from characteristics of Autistic Spectrum Disorder - difficulties with: social skills, communication, obsessive tendencies, adaptability and speech articulation, amongst other possible symptoms.

A high functioning autism to be sure, perhaps Asperger's, but certainly in the spectrum.
Call me pedantic, but I would like proof of this diagnosis. The word of a relative in South Korea seems like hearsay to me and not exactly iron-clad. Not to mention, Cho didn't come to America until he was eight years old. He wasn't diagnosed in South Korea? A shy, socially awkward child who gets language late and interacts oddly doesn't guarantee an Autism diagnosis. My next door neighbor had six boys who fit that description and all matured in college, half are married and they each are contributing members of society.

What Fleetwood seeks in the V-Tech massacre is a platform to discuss bullying and mental health disorders in young people. He wants compassion for victims, like Cho, who strike out (no doubt, the suicide bombers in Iraq are victims, too). But most of all, he wants government intervention. Once the autism premise is accepted as fact the next step is simple: more government intervention for children with all forms of mental health issues. He is joined by other journalists who speculate and end with this hope:
We seem to disregard history and this is one major mistake. It has been mentioned that by doing something repeatedly and gaining the same bad results is a sign of mental illness. Let us take this tragedy and learn just what caused it. Make the necessary changes and at the very least try to avoid another Virginia Tech.
From what little is known so far, though, Cho presents as a socially awkward, language-challenged kid who was picked on for being different as a teenager. While he may have been traumatized as a teen, his college acquaintances seemed more than kind to him and he didn't respond or responded weirdly. Not only did he have trouble with friend relationships, he had trouble with women, too. And a real expert says this:
Robert Ressler, the retired FBI profiler who is credited with coining the term "serial killer," said he thinks Cho had an inadequate-personality disorder with psychopathic overtones.

"Oftentimes there are sexual underpinnings to inadequacy," he said, noting authorities say Cho stalked two Virginia Tech students in 2005, leading to two encounters with police. High school classmates say they never saw him interact with girls.

Ressler added that Cho seemed "so mission-oriented. That would go against schizophrenia and more toward psychopathy."

Muscari said Cho's apparent level of organization, as evidenced by the multimedia manifesto he mailed to NBC between Monday's shootings, could be evidence of psychopathy.
He's not the only one skeptical of the autism connection:
James Kauffman, a retired University of Virginia education behaviorist, dismissed any possible link between Cho's violence and autism.

"I don't see any connection to autism at all, even if he was diagnosed," Kauffman said. "It doesn't wash."

Clint Van Zandt, another retired FBI profiler, said he could not call to mind any serial killer who was autistic. "None," he said.
As I've noted before, though, the killer did receive intervention in the medical and educational community, and, even more significantly, in the judicial system. This was not a young man who didn't receive intervention.

Even still, all this speculation matters little. For every unbalanced person who snaps, there are scores who bumble through life, self-medicate, get medicated, or live borderline lives. And a great number of people are content with their neurosis or psychosis, thank you, and resist intervention. And while some journalists pine for more mental health intervention and portray a false dichotomy--locking down campuses on the one hand or serious mental health intervention on the other--the truth is that save locking this kid up (and would he and his family submit to this and is society at large comfortable with this) this kind of thing will happen again and not because of undiagnosed mental illness, but because people snap at weird times for weird reasons.

As a parent of an autistic kid, I've been around lots of autistic people--children and adults. Some parents have children who grow up big and strong but have the emotional responsiveness of a young child. Invariably these people are institutionalized to some degree. But they are childlike in all their emotions--not just anger. Note that I acknowledge that autistic people can get angry, even violently so. Still, I have never seen an autistic person being methodically violent such as displayed at Virginia Tech. It just doesn't fit.

Bullying is another issue. I'm so worried about the bullying that does come to those on the Autism Spectrum that I'm considering home schooling once he reaches middle school age. We had our first incident of aggression on the bus last week. We intervened and it stopped. We have concerned neighbor kids and an ever watchful sister to alert us to potential problems. When my son gets frustrated because he has to work so much harder to "get it" (socially and academically), I tell him that life is tough. Everyone has difficulties. Some things are easier for him (and some things are) and some things are tougher. And while bullying is unacceptable to me and the teachers that look the other way are complicit in abuse, bullies are wily creatures. I got bullied in middle school and the most dangerous times no teacher was in sight.

Bullying is wrong. Unsupported at-risk children is wrong. A lot of wrong happens, and none of it excuses guys like Cho. Really, none of it explains guys like Cho. When considering that 83% of middle schoolers report bullying it's hard to make the connection that his background somehow caused the violence.

I know it's uncomfortable acknowledging that some people snap in horrible ways for their own reasons. Every criminal in the blames someone for their nefarious ways. Members of the media using autism as the hook to explain the killer's behavior is worse than ignorant. People need to get okay with the fact that some people are evil, some deranged, some filled with hate. And some kill. And one did. And no one is to blame but him.


Anonymous said...

You said, "bullying is wrong."

My husband, a stutterer, was bullied and exaclty as you, no one was around to help him. Unfortunatley, his parents had too many problems of their own to even be aware of what was going on with their son. My husband suffered a great deal, sometimes even to this day.

I will not allow my kids to go on the bus for this very reason. I've seen clips on 60min. how kids get beat up and bullied on the bus. I would rather drive them to school myself. I don't know if I can always protect them like this but for now I can, and I will.

Also, I have to agree with you; autistic kids and adults seem to have a child likeness about them that seems not to match what Cho's profile reveals. I do believe he is the only one to blame...because he had a "choice."

However, Dr. Chopra wrote an article on "Intend Blog" that I found important to acknowlege. No one really knows the unhappiness of another human being. He said that so many people live very lonely lives. I think this is a lot more prevalent than any of us want to realize or acknowledge. For children and teens to have to live with and deal with such aloneness/loneliness is excruciatingly painful. What the answer to that is, who knows. It is a tough one!

This is certainly NOT to excuse what happend. It was a tragic event to its highest proportion. I'm just acknowledging and agreeing that this is a deep an big problem.

Luke said...

I think that isn't so much autistic, he had it plan for a while, and something occur to him that day that off him, that today is the day. We just don't know enough.