This week marks two months since the Sandy Hook school shootings that have jump-started the national dialogue on curbing gun violence. Due to some limitations on their ability to communicate, people with autism are sometimes regarded as being more prone to acts of planned violence. Claims like this, that a link may exist between neurological disorders and mass murders, echoed around TV talk shows and other news outlets following the Connecticut and Colorado mass shootings. Today an outspoken young artist with a mild form of autism wants to hlep set the record straight for those who don't understand the way his brain works. IPR's Peter Gray has the story.
In the living room of his family home in Urbana, Quinn Koeneman shows me a brightly colored tangle of metal wire. It's a wearable sculpture he shared with his classmates at Chicago's School of the Art Institute.
KOENEMAN: "It's something that reaches out to people for the wearer. So if you were to put that helmet on, you would all of a sudden be automated when it comes to trying to emotionally reach out to someone."
Since his diagnosis at age 8, Quinn has learned to use art to reach out to others.
KOENEMAN: "All the people put on the helmet and suddenly become awkward little people, struggling with the same thing that I struggle with."
Like many living with Asperger Syndrome, Quinn has difficulty interacting socially. The 18-year-old artist paints me a picture of life with high-functioning autism: He says it's like climbing a mountain, constantly looking out for falling rocks. During our conversation I notice him stumble only slightly.
KOENEMAN: "Why can't it be considered something that's just alternate instead of negative...sorry...negative as opposed to positive."
Apologizing when his mind goes on a tangent is a childhood habit he's trying to break. As a young white male he now faces a more serious obstacle, the social stigma fueled by speculation in the media that those like him are somehow more prone to acts of violence. We watch a clip on my phone. TV host Joe Scarborough speaking on MSNBC following the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
SCARBOROUGH: "As soon as I heard about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, disconnected from society. It happens time and time again, it has to do with mental health. You have these people who are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale..."
Joe Scarborough goes on to say that he has a child with Asperger's, but Quinn stops the video before we get that far, his face flushed. He says it's frustrating and scary when people assume that differently wired brains are violent brains.
KOENEMAN: "Autism doesn't make anger. Autism makes fear. Autism makes discomfort. But none of those lead to violence."
Licensed Clinical Counselor Julie Alderman with the Autism Program of Illinois agrees.
ALDERMAN: "What ASD is, it's a neurological developmental disability. It is a very different thing from a mental health issue. It is a developmental disability."
Alderman's center at the Hope Institute in Springfield offers family counseling and professional training for those impacted by ASD, "Autism Spectrum Disorder". She insists her clients are more often victims of violence or bullying than the other way around. Today, she says those like Quinn Koeneman face a new threat.
ALDERMAN: "With the new DSM criteria, it's just going to be a lot more focused. There is concern, among that community, that they will lose their identity."
That's because the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove Asperger's from the latest edition of its widely used reference text for doctors, the DSM. The term "Autism Spectrum Disorder" will now apply to five autism-related diagnoses that researchers found weren't consistently applied in clinics across the U.S. Those behind creation of a severity spectrum say it will allow for more accurate diagnosis and help further research into what causes autism. Quinn Koeneman, who's embraced Asperger's and identifies himself as an "Aspie", says those changes will likely mean more stereotypes and stigmas for him to cope with.
KOENEMAN: "It puts people like me in a tough situation, because we don't want to face the label of autistic when we're grouped in with people who can't function on their own."
At age 13, Quinn published Through My Eyes: A Life With Asperger's. The teen author says he wrote it as therapy and to help other kids struggling with the same thing. In 2013, Koeneman might want to sharpen a pencil or dust off his keyboard. Kids could use a revised self-help book to go with their doctor's revised diagnostic manual.
Somehow "Through My Eyes: A Life With Mild Autism Spectrum Disorder," just doesn't have the same ring to it.
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