Saturday, 7 April 2012

Conversations I want to have

The following was recently published in 'Thinking Differently', the quarterly newsletter of Autism New Zealand Inc.
'Your Letters'
This is an excerpt from a letter we received from one reader, who had been married to a man with Aspergers Syndrome. She discovered he'd been sexually interfering with her 11-year old twin daughters and eventual divorced him. The letter is extensive, but she presents a valid point of view, based on her experience.
"The Law is there to protect others from those behaviours. Aspergers should not be exempt from the law or being locked up. I do believe many serial killers and rapists have Aspergers. They can be cunning and devious. Aspergers do commit crimes, probably more often than normal people. We matter too."
H---- F--- (abridged)
I'm angry and saddened that it was written, more so that Autism New Zealand saw fit to publish such an offensive letter whilst stating that it presents 'a valid point of view'. But I'm perhaps most frustrated at the way it has set the agenda, that to counteract this it feels necessary to scrabble round for statistics saying that we're not any more likely to murder or rape than "normal people". I don't want to have to come up with examples of how we're the good "Aspergers" who pay our taxes and follow the law and have never had so much as a speeding fine. Those aren't the conversations I want to have.

I don't think there's any way to usefully engage with the idea of 'serial killers'. Is regular murder not shocking enough? There really aren't enough serial killers out there for this to be a meaningful discussion. I don't believe aspies are any more likely to be rapists than the general population. If there's evidence of a statistically significant disparity, that needs to be looked at, but in a country and world with the rates of rape and associated violence that exists, along with the terrible conviction rates and limited government willingness to do anything about either, I feel there are more important things to engage in that idle speculation about who does it most.

But let's leave aside the serial killers and the rapists for a second. Let's talk about the aspies who end up in the justice system for vandalism, for theft, for getting into fights or retaliating against violence. Lets talk about those who have not done what they're accused of but can't stand up to questioning or navigate the legal system (as a teenager I admitted to shoplifting I hadn't done (fortunately avoiding a criminal charge) because security guard told me I had no choice but to admit it and I believed that, literally, and because I didn't see any way anyone would understand my compulsive need to read song lyrics anyway). If the main backbone of the conversation is that statistically most of us are law abiding, if those of us who can go round flaunting our jobs and our taxpaying and our relationships and our degrees and our mortgages and our nice clean criminal records, then we're feeling good about ourselves and changing absolutely nothing.

So instead, let's have a conversation about a world which makes things unbearable for us, and when we lash out, potentially at people or at objects, the solution is not to change the environment to prevent a reoccurance, but to punish us. Let's have a conversation about how difficult legal systems are to navigate, how atypical facial expressions or eye contact are so often assumed to mean guilt, how a neurotypical person can sometimes avoid a charge for a minor offence with a "sorry mate" whilst pedantic questioning of language and the nature of the offence is almost certainly going to lead to an arrest. Let's talk about how atypical movement or gestures or reasons for going to places is viewed as grounds for suspicion, how silence is viewed as stubbornness or lack of co-operation, how literal interpretation of questions is viewed as rudeness. Let's talk about how the effect is doubled, tripled for people already disadvantaged in our legal system.

Let's not be afraid to have a conversation about prisons. When people say we don't lock up autistic people/mentally ill people/intellectually impaired people, I always want to ask what the hell they think prisons are other than a dumping ground with disproportionate rates of all of the above. And I get why we're afraid to talk about this - we've spent so long trying to say that we're good people really, we're not scary people, we could be your neighbour. But we need to challenge the assumption that there's a perfect correlation between 'in prison' and 'bad person', or that crimes exist in some kind of vacuum as an indicator of someone's morality, rather than being socially constructed.

Yes, it is worth challenging such obvious bigotry, the inaccruate assumptions, the stereotyping and the offensive language. And then let's move on. If we're talking about Aspergers and crime, let's talk about parents who murder autistic children and are then treated with sympathy, about autistic people who have been raped and are then told their non-verbal communication is inadmissable in court. Let's talk less about how some cunning and devious aspies can apparently get away with everything (something I'd guess would have far more to with the numbers who get away with child abuse generally) and more about how the legal system fails aspies on both sides.


Anonymous said...

Just saying:

It's a real shame that if someone who is "different" does something wrong, the bad behaviour is very often associated with their whole group, rather than with the individual. "Ordinary" people are seen as individuals by default, and never need to defensively prove themselves to be okay in the face of a member of their group behaving badly,(and nor should they), even when they are members of a section of the "normals" that is actually overrepresented in some negative statistic. In the example of the letter writer, a bigoted tirade against men as criminals or sexual abusers would not be considered to require serious discussion by most people.

Draco TB said...

Let's talk about how some cunning and devious aspies can apparently get away with everything

Are they aspies or psychopaths? My own reading would indicate that the two do share some traits and so could be confused. The difference, in general terms, is that people with aspergers have a conscience and psychopaths don't.

anthea said...

Sorry Draco, I missed a crucial word in that sentence. I was referring to the idea presented by the letter writer. I can't say I know much about psychopathy - my speculation about what's going on here is that for some people it's less terrifying to ascribe someone getting away with abuse to a "disorder"/ability than as one example of something which happens all the time. Just speculation though.