PULLMAN, Wash. - In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., grade school killings, the Associated Press has issued guidelines for reporters on coverage of mental disorders.
"That’s a good, first step in dispelling the myth that autism causes people to commit horrific crimes,” said a Washington State University psychology professor who has researched the disorder.
After Adam Lanza shot 27 people and then himself on Dec. 14, numerous media reports implied a link between his shooting rampage and the fact that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism.
"When I first heard that, I thought, ‘Oh no, this is bad. This is really bad,’” said WSU psychologist Theodore Beauchaine, who spent a decade researching the condition that affects one in 88 children, according to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People on the autism spectrum – severe or mild – "aren’t cold-blooded killers. If someone with autism gets aggressive, it’s because they’re frustrated by not being able to communicate and it’s a reactive, fleeting kind of aggression,” said Beauchaine. "It’s nothing like the planned, deliberate act of violence committed by the young man in Newtown.”
What’s more, because of their aloofness and quirkiness, people with autism are more likely to be victims, not killers, he said.
In the first days of the shootings, major news outlets, including The New York Times, quoted mostly unnamed sources that 20-year-old Lanza had Asperger’s. Some went so far as to suggest that it had played a role in why he carried out the shootings. Soon afterward, autism medical experts, advocacy groups and parents responded by launching a blitz of letters, phone calls, editorial columns, blog articles and social media posts to correct the record.
"If study after study has definitively established that a person with autism is no more likely to be violent or engage in criminal behavior than a neurotypical person, it is just as clear that autistic people are far more likely to be victims of bullying and emotional and physical abuse …” wrote book author and parent Priscilla Gilman in a New York Times guest column.
After investigating readers’ complaints, The Times’ public editor agreed. In Margaret Sullivan’s column, "Adam Lanza, Asperger’s and a Misleading Connection with Violence,” she wrote that reporters covering the breaking story didn’t use good judgment.
AP: Don’t assume
More recently is the announcement by the Associated Press of its new mental disorders entry in the AP Stylebook - long considered the gold-standard guide for journalists on writing style and reporting practices.
Among other things, the revision advises journalists not to describe someone as having a mental disorder "unless it is clearly pertinent to the story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.” It also stresses that reporters shouldn’t assume a mental disorder is connected to a violent crime: "Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.”
The change is a positive contribution, said Beauchaine, but it will take some time to undo the false impressions caused by the media’s initial barrage of misinformation. As one person posted on Twitter the day after the shootings, "Try curing the real problem, autism, not the NRA.”
Said Beauchaine: "At the very least, it’s an opportunity to do some educating about people on the autism spectrum.”
After all, with one in 88 children being diagnosed with autism, a lot of those people are among us.