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.