What I Worry About

Newtown Memorial
A woman puts a photo of a child on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., as the town mourns victims killed in a school shooting, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

As Friday’s unspeakable tragedy unfolded in Newtown, I had the same reaction as many parents: A knee-buckling wave of nausea, followed by panic and a desire to hug my kids as soon as — and for as long as — possible.

Veronica and I exchanged a hurried phone call and a series of texts to make sure our sitter would keep the kids away from the television. I worried about both kids’ reaction, but Ryan more so.

With Ryan, it wasn’t so much explaining what happened that concerned us, but how he would process it. Last year, a boy in our town about Ryan’s age was tragically killed in a car accident. This was not a friend, not someone Ryan knew of well, but Ryan still perseverated on the event for weeks, perhaps months. With that event, he was fixated on the chances of a similar fate befalling him, and deeply unsatisfied with the answers we gave.

The exchanges typically went like this:

“Will we get into a car accident?”

“The chances are very remote.”

“So we could?”

Exasperated after several rounds of this, I simply told him “no.” Which led to the following. Every. Single. Time.

“But how do you know?”

We feared something similar over the weekend after we told Ryan about the school shooting. But oddly — or perhaps not — what Ryan perseverated on weren’t the chances of something similar happening at his school. Instead, he began asking about car accidents for the first time in many months, referencing the same child that had passed away locally.

I shouldn’t be surprised. After we told him about Newtown, he searched his memory bank for something similar and returned to it. By the time he returned to school on Monday, he still had not asked much about the shooting.

During the weekend, my fears shifted. As more information emerged about Adam Lanza, I worried Ryan would hear the discussion about Lanza’s possible Asperger’s diagnosis — a term we have discussed openly with Ryan — and wonder about himself. The early reporting on this aspect of Lanza’s life, like much of the early reporting overall, was wildly irresponsible. In subsequent days, more and more responsible reports surfaced dismissing a connection between autism spectrum disorders and violence, but I fear we’ve had a setback to understanding people like my son.

As the misinformation continues — on Monday night I heard a national television program describe Lanza as “suffering from Asperger’s disease” — this worry has continued to nag at me.

At work I found myself in a conversation with a fellow parent about how our kids reacted to the tragedy. This person knows a little about Ryan, and asked if he was my child with autism. I described him as an “Asperger’s-like” kid, but my voice caught as I did so. Has that word taken on an entirely new, and horribly negative, meaning since Friday? If my co-worker made the connection, he didn’t show it. But still, I wondered.

Our kids face enough challenges without people, fueled by wild media speculation, making assumptions about what their social awkwardness or quirky behaviors ultimately say about them. I surely hope that is not one of the lasting legacies of Newtown. Instead, I hope this can spark meaningful discussion about mental health and support services. It sounds like Lanza was well supported by his school system. Did he fall off “the cliff of 18?” We may never know what happened to cause him to commit such atrocities. But perhaps, among the many, many things in our society that need to be examined in the wake of this tragedy, the lack of support for adults in the special needs community can fall somewhere on the list.

Because if you want to know what I really worry about, it is what happens to my son and so many like him when the careful structure of school-based support evaporates after high school.

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4 thoughts on “What I Worry About

  1. We’ve been waiting for our son to ask questions. I prepared him for what bullies may say to him at school the next week and reminded him about how his appearance will be very important (living an an appearance based society). My son wears a photography/fishing vest to carry all his treasures, wallet, and cell phone. He decided to switch to his fleece vests (with two regular pockets) so that he didn’t scare anyone at school. He understands what it is like to feel unsafe, even if he doesn’t always understand why others may feel unsafe, and he doesn’t want to make anyone feel unsafe in his presence because of his choice of vest.

    Interesting about the car accident. My brother was in a really serious accident two years ago. He was bruised up and the vehicle was totaled. Every time he sees my brother he asks about it. Every time he sees an accident, he processes it by talking about my brother’s accident. His teachers at school actually sent me an e-mail saying “Your Son shouldn’t drive because he is obsessed with car crashes and will cause an accident.” The school got a quick lesson on perseveration.

    Eventually, I’m guessing my boy will start to ask questions. It’s so much to process, only time will tell.

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    1. Thank you for posting such an insightful comments. I’m sorry your son has had to adjust his attire to avoid being seen as threatening by others, but at the same time, I’m glad he has the perspective to realize and understand the impact of appearances.

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  2. My son is only a first grader…but I also worry about what will happen once he is done with school and if he needs transition services, then what happens upon his 22nd birthday. I think that as part of the whole re-examining what is important to us and saving and protecting our children (as a nation), we really need to look at the services provided for special needs individuals…whether it is due to a genetic, neurological, or mental health issue. There is definitely a “cliff” and I worry that my son could fall off of the precipice if he has no safety net.

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