Where is the safe space for autistics?

Illustration by Rebecca Comeau

Illustration by Rebecca Comeau

The fatal shooting at a community college in Umpqua, Ore. on Oct. 1 was a tragedy that rocked the United States, and deeply affected everyone who watched it unfold. Once again, the media soon started to speculate about what drove the shooter to his actions. Articles began to surface with the mother of the shooter claiming both she and her son had Asperger’s Syndrome.

Blaming shootings on Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) is nothing new. When Elliot Rodger, son of the creative director for the Hunger Games films, went on his shooting spree in May 2014, the media said he had Asperger’s as well. And despite studies showing that there is no correlation between ASDs and violent crime, the media and public seem to eat up such speculation, eager to blame autistics for shootings all the way from Sandy Hook to the Oregon tragedy.

The most recent example of this comes in the form of a Facebook group called Families United Against Autistic Shooters. Despite the page being flagged and petitions filed against it, Facebook initially decided to leave it up, wavering between whether it violates their policy or not. Meanwhile, the group is given a platform to discriminate against autistics and perpetuate their negative claims to the point that autistics and their allies are not feeling safe on Facebook.

Now, most might say, “so what? This discrimination is just on Facebook, or in the media. It’s not like it’s going to affect people in real life.” However, discrimination against people with ASDs has been growing for years, and, especially with the most recent wave, there have even been deaths and attempted murders due to lack of awareness and support, though admittedly such cases are few.

This is now a fear that people with high-functioning ASDs live with every single day. Imagine that you’ve been made aware that the mainstream media, the powers that be, and members of the average population view people like you as predisposed to committing violent crime. As a result, in addition to worrying about your social skills being off, and not knowing when or if any of the other ASD symptoms like sensory overload will kick in, you’re afraid to reveal your disorder to new people. You end up imagining, based on all this data, that if you approach someone and say, “Hi, I have Asperger’s” or, “I have an ASD,” you will be feared. You may even have people running from you because they think you’re a mass shooter or somehow violent, in addition to being odd or different. This risk may be low, but speaking as someone with Asperger’s, this fear is all too real for me.

Universities and colleges are supposed to be safe spaces for all. However, in an attempt to create a safe space for students, what if one group gets unduly vilified and marginalized in the process? Some have called me an alarmist for worrying about this in the past. However, Islam is yet again being associated with terrorism due to fallout from the federal election’s niqab debate; it’s not too much of a leap to believe that one day, similar tactics may be used those with ASDs.

I urge everyone, if you know of someone with an ASD — get to know them better. We are people, not monsters. We are not mass shooters in training. We need to build bridges, and to get help and support. Contrary to what some groups are claiming, we are not the enemy. And we need a safe space too.


Avatar Guthrie Prentice

Dear Pacifica,

The primary issue is that people with Asperger’s and ASDs may not realize that they are doing anything socially inappropriate. If someone does something that makes you socially uncomfortable, check to see if they have an ASD and then be very clear with them about what it is they did wrong and why. If they are aware of what they’ve done wrong, chances are, they will do everything in their power to avoid doing it again.

Two other major problems that can happen for people with ASDs are the issues of anxiety and sensory overload. If an autistic seems like they’re about to have a meltdown, do what you can to help them get away from whatever is overloading them or to minimize the overload so that they can start returning to normal once the brain is able to process whatever information is currently running through their head. Another way of dealing with it is to do what you would normally do to help with Anxiety. Don’t just tell them it’s going to get better. Provide them something concrete that they know of to latch on to. Asperger’s Syndrome and ASDs often have an aspect known as Hyperfocus. It can be a weakness in some circumstances, but in fighting overload or anxiety, it can turn into a strength if you know how to activate it and get the autistic to use it to help fight the meltdown or overload.

To create a truly safe space though is going to require education. I’ve done a small amount by posting this article, but to help create a safer space, educate yourself on ASDs from sources like Simon Baron Cohen’s or Dr. Tony Atwood’s work. Help fight against organizations like Autism Speaks who promote eugenics against people with ASDs or who treat autism like it is a disease that needs to be cured. We do not need to be cured. We have a different neurological wiring that makes us unique. But the best strength for society is unity in diversity. We need to celebrate the diversity in neurological wiring and provide supports to help autistics shore up their weaknesses while enhancing their strengths to the fullest (possibly higher linguistic or mathematical capabilities, heightened memory, savantism for that 10 percent of autistics, etc).

Finally, remember that Autism is a spectrum, so each case is likely to be unique. So work with each autistic you know to find out what they need. If they don’t know, then help find out from people who are disability advocates, like the RCSD or the SSD (society for students with disabilities) what can be done to help them feel safer.

Other than these tips, just work on fighting discrimination through education and create safe spaces the way you would for other groups. We also need an open dialogue between all minorities or oppressed groups on campus. We don’t want one group getting oppressed in the name of creating a safe space for another (the main point of this article). With everyone working together, fighting ignorance and bigotry will be significantly easier and will make the university a safer space for all involved.

Thanks for asking the question. The more people start asking questions like these, the closer we are to solving the problem of safety for all.


Guthrie Prentice.

Leave a Reply