Children on the Autism spectrum are not to be feared, says the owner of Idea House in Lake Township. Speculation about the Sandy Hook shooter prompted Angi DiSpina-Shumate to speak out about her kind and gentle students at the school for children with autism and Asperger's Syndrome.
One week ago in Connecticut, a 20-year-old man shot and killed his mother, 20 first-grade students, six adult school employees, then himself.
What led him to open fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School? What made him tick? What set him off?
Much speculation has been made that the man — reported by former classmates and others as socially awkward and introverted — had Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
It is not yet known if the gunman was ever formally diagnosed.
No matter, say some local educators. They say the damage already has been done.
FEAR AND STIGMA
A Facebook page created after the shooting — since deleted — called, “Aspergers Prevention Campaign: Stop the Slayings,” prompted a Lake Township school owner and intervention specialist to speak out.
The Facebook page asked for “likes” and said, “When we get 50 likes, we will find an Autistic kid and set it on fire.”
An outraged Angi DiSpina-Shumate of The Idea House asked of her friends, “Defend these individuals with your heart and soul. They should not be targeted nor disrespected this way.”
She also invited The Repository to meet her students, whom she says are gentle and kind children who avoid conflict.
“Autism, in its purest form, does not indicate a propensity for violence,” Shumate said Thursday. “We’re trying to get them to interact. If they feel aggression, its usually self-directed.”
Aggressive feelings, she explained, make kids on the spectrum flee.
“Rather than go towards conflict, they run away,” she emphasized.
Shumate said the Sandy Hook shooter very well could have had Asperger’s Syndrome. If so, it likely was coupled with a psychological disorder. Those with Asberger’s, she added, have difficulty formulating details and executing a plan further than 10 minutes into the future.
“The premeditation (at Sandy Hook) completely negates one of the fundamental aspects of Asberger’s,” Shumate said.
The needs of children on the autism spectrum are complex and every child is different, Shumate said. “But the one thing that’s being put out there is that they need to be feared,” she said.
She stressed that it is important also to realize that every child who is shy or reserved does not have Asperger’s. The way the diagnosis gets “tossed out” she said, is frightening.
Shumate said psychological diagnoses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorders, cannot be made until a child turns 18. Often, they are put under the umbrella of autism to receive services.
“It muddies the perception and awareness of what autism really is,” Shumate warned.
When Bethany Wilson’s nearly 13-year-old son Chris heard a reporter on television speculate that the Sandy Hook shooter had Asperger’s, he said to her, “That’s like me.”
Page 2 of 2 - His words hurt her heart.
“My biggest fear — we have spent a lot of time getting Chris to feel comfortable around other kids — that people would be fearful of having their kids around him,” she said.
Wilson teaches at Idea House, where her son attends. She said Chris was upset by the news of the school shooting and the idea that Asperger’s was connected to it. She explained to him that Asperger’s did not cause violence.
Chris himself explained what he does when he feels angry or excited and needs to be calmed from what they call an autistic meltdown.
“I squeeze myself,” he said, adding he also goes to the sensory room and his mom or a teacher can hug him tight, as well.
At Idea House, along with academics, Chris is taught how to facilitate conversations, have good social skills, and take turns.
“We teach them how the world perceives them. Everyone here is different, but have a lot of the same challenges,” Wilson said. “We can’t undo all this work we have done as a society to understand autism. I want people to see my son as intelligent, compassionate, and loving.”
The school’s guidance counselor, Ann Kagarise, added:
“These kids are the most loving, caring kids I’ve ever met. They can see someone is about to cry before it happens and are the first to put an arm around you and tell you they care.”
Thoughts on the Sandy Hook tragedy from Idea House can be read at: http://www.ideahouseeducationalservices.com/