From the Autism Society:
In The Politics of Autism, I write:
There is no evidence linking autism to planned violence, but in recent years, mass shootings by young men have led commentators in the mainstream media and on the Internet to suggest such a connection. After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, for instance, news reports said that the shooter was on the spectrum. The speculation made little sense to anyone who understood autism. Whereas autistic people have language delays and deficits, the killer had learned English as a second language — and learned it well enough to major in the subject in college. Later on, it turned out that he had an entirely different problem, a social anxiety disorder. Adam Lanza, who committed the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, may have had an Asperger’s diagnosis, but his father emphasized that his behavior stemmed from the psychiatric illnesses that he also had. Nevertheless, the media speculated about Lanza’s place on the spectrum, which worried autism parents. One mother of an autistic child wrote: “This is the first time I'm truly afraid for him. Afraid of what may happen to my son with autism at the hands of a stranger; a stranger who has chosen to buy into the media-fueled misinformation that individuals diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are dangerous and capable of horrendous acts of terror and violence.”
As leaders of intellectual and developmental disabilities organizations, we find recent statements made by Albert Watkins regarding our communities as reprehensible, inexcusable and deeply offensive.
Albert Watkins, an attorney representing Jacob Chansley, one of the rioters of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, recently suggested that Mr. Chansley has Asperger’s syndrome, which is an older term that is no longer used as it’s part of the diagnosis for Autism Spectrum Disorder. He stated that this diagnosis and other contributing factors will be a part of Mr. Chansley’s defense.
While making his argument, Mr. Watkins stated, “A lot of these defendants—and I’m going to use this colloquial term, perhaps disrespectfully—but they’re all f__king short-bus people. These are people with brain damage, they’re f__king ret__ed, they’re on the g__damn spectrum.”
This language is unacceptable and the suggestion that having autism or other developmental disabilities is a defense to a crime cannot be tolerated. As a graduate of St. Louis University and having received his law degree from Georgetown Law School, Mr. Watkins knows the power of words and the harm caused by such offensive and unnecessary language.
His offensive and derogatory language contributes to the stigma that people with autism and other developmental disabilities experience. People with developmental disabilities are not more likely to commit crimes, nor is their disability a defense when they do offend. In fact, people with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of violence and abuse than they are to be criminals.
Our collective organizations have worked for years for and with people with disabilities and their families to promote a fully inclusive society. History tells us that comments like these, left unchecked lead to further discrimination and violence directed at people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Attempting to link people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to hateful or violent crimes furthers harmful stigmas. People with disabilities can hold their own opinions, and/or make bad choices, but this is because they are human, not because of their disability.
How we portray people with disabilities matters. The ADA National Network has a Fact Sheet that provides “guidelines for portraying individuals with disabilities in a respectful and balanced way by using language that is accurate, neutral and objective.” We urge those who are writing or speaking on disabilities to read this useful resource.
We call upon the public to join us in condemning the remarks of Mr. Watkins and promoting the development of a just society that treats all people with respect and dignity, including people with disabilities.
American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Margaret A. Nygren, Executive Director & CEO
Association of University Centers on Disabilities, John Tschida, Executive Director
Association of People Supporting Employment First, Julie Christensen, Director of Policy & Advocacy, Interim Executive Director
Autism Society of America, Christopher Banks, President & CEO
Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Julia Bascom, Executive Director
Easterseals, Angela F. Williams, President & CEO
National Disability Rights Network, Curt Decker, Executive Director
Spina Bifida Association, Sara Struwe, President & CEO
TASH, Mike Brogioli, Executive Director
The Arc, Peter Berns, CEO
United Cerebral Palsy, Armando A. Contreras, President & CEO