Trigger warning: this post makes reference to the Newtown shooting. I wrote it on Sunday with the intention of posting it Monday, but held it back in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. We’re all still emotionally raw from both events. I don’t want to wait longer to post it, though, because the senate vote on the background check bill is scheduled for today. Unfortunately, it’s not a vote on the bill itself, but on whether or not to vote on the bill at all because Republican Senators are filibustering the vote. I want to post this before that happens. Not that I have any influence anywhere, but I think it will make me feel better to have said it out loud with all the force I can muster. 

It won’t come as a surprise to any of you that I adore Rachel Maddow. Yes, we share many political views, but I share political views with Lawrence O’Donnell without adoring him. Nothing against Lawrence O’Donnell, it’s just that Rachel is exceptional. She is intelligent, fair, well-researched, passionate, and superbly nerdy. She starts every interview by asking the guest if she got anything wrong in the introduction. She apologizes and makes a correction if she gets something wrong. She’s a policy wonk, but not in a condescending way, she’s just passionate about it and it comes through in her delivery. I think my favorite thing about her is that she somehow manages to be a political pundit, butting heads with the most entrenched, jaded, and cynical people Washington can cough up without becoming cynical herself. Not that she’s a pollyanna, she’s anything but, yet she goes on the air every weeknight attempting to raise the level of conversation to one that’s honest, intelligent, and factual. I think that’s admirable.

This post isn’t about my love for Rachel, though. Well, it isn’t all about that. The first segment of her show on Friday was dedicated to the gun control legislation that’s about to be debated in the senate this week. Even though I don’t agree with some of the things the Democrats took out of the bill (*cough*ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines*cough*), I am so proud of them for standing together to override the filibuster. Let the debate come. Stand up and tell us why universal background checks are a bad idea. Because criminals will still get guns? Okay, but they won’t be able to just walk up to a booth at a gun show and walk away with one no questions asked. That is a step in the right direction and if you’re going to vote against it, you need to offer up a better argument. And now you’re going to have to put it on the record.

Toward the end of the segment, Rachel interviewed Nicole Hockley, mother of one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook. Ms. Hockley was well-spoken and I’m so glad she and other Newtown family members will be in Washington this week to continue pressure on lawmakers. Here’s a clip of the segment. The interview portion begins at 8:44, in case you want to skip ahead.

I can see why Rachel would wonder where Ms. Hockley gets the strength to speak out and actively push for gun control legislation in the wake of her heartache. I think I understand it, though. It’s something to do. Something to keep her moving forward. Something to strive for that is valuable for out nation and, moreover, has the potential to bring meaning and import to her son’s death. Not that, as she said, it was worth the price, but she didn’t have a choice in that part. That’s true for all the Newtown families who are working together to push Washington out of the NRA’s pocket and toward meaningful gun control legislation. I admire them. And to Senator Inhoff’s assertion that the Sandy Hook families are being used, I say: make a real argument. You are the one marginalizing their real emotional pain for political purposes. Have you no shame?

At 2:35 in that segment, I learned a fact of which I had previously been unaware and it made me identify with Ms. Hockley even more than the other families. Ms. Hockley’s son, Dylan, was autistic. He was a six-year-old autistic boy in kindergarten, just like Zoo Keeper. At his memorial service, she spoke about Dylan being a hand flapper and about him telling her that he did it because he was a beautiful butterfly. I love that. My son BamBam’s repetitive motion is sort of a waving of his right arm coupled with a full-leg foot stomp. I hope one day he’ll tell me what it means to him. It makes my entire body freeze to think of never seeing him do it again.

Finding out that Dylan was autistic also leads me to wonder how the Hockleys felt about the media’s fascination with the unconfirmed assertion that the murderer was autistic. About their careless supposition that autism was a factor in his actions on December 14th. I hope they are unaware* of it; that they were at least spared that.

*I later found this article, which discusses their awareness of it in the last paragraph.

Personally, it makes me see red. Yes, autistic individuals can have violent outbursts. They don’t, however, make plans to go on killing sprees. If they do, it’s not the autism causing it. There are several reasons I can say that, but what it ultimately comes down to for me is empathy. You see, there’s a difference between cognitive empathy, where the individual can read the emotions of others, and affective empathy, where the individual actual feels the emotions. Sociopaths are expert at cognitive empathy and lack affective empathy, meaning they can fake it, but not feel it. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Cambridge professor of psychology Simon Baron-Cohen that explains cognitive empathy better than I can:

Is it the case, then, that autistic people are not good at the “mind reading” part of empathy, in terms of predicting people’s behavior and feelings, while psychopaths are able to do that but are not able to care?

I think the contrast between these two conditions provides some evidence for that dissociation within empathy. People with psychopathy are very good at reading the minds of their victims. That’s probably most clearly seen in deception. You have to be good at mind reading before it would even occur to you want [to deceive someone]. So you can see the cognitive part of empathy as functioning very well, but the fact that they don’t have the appropriate emotional response to someone else’s state of mind, the feeling of wanting to alleviate distress if someone’s in pain, [that suggests that] the affective part of empathy is not functioning normally.

Autistic people, on the other hand, are generally proficient at affective empathy and deficient in cognitive empathy, meaning that they can care very much about the pain of another person, they just have difficulty recognizing it or shifting attention away from whatever they are hyper-focused on. In Zoo Keeper’s case, that would be the zoo.

I’ll give you two personal examples. A friend’s autistic son recently used an unacceptable word to his aide in school when he was upset. He got in a lot of trouble for it and didn’t understand why. To him, it was just a word he had heard on a video. When his mom explained the word to him he was so angry with himself for using it and for hurting his aide with it. That’s affective empathy.

Last year, the boys and I were tested for food allergies. The test was a finger prick. A deep, deep finger prick. I went first, and let me tell you, it was incredibly painful. Zoo Keeper went next. When he was done, he was adamant that his brother not do the test because he didn’t want BamBam to experience the pain. The doctor said he had never seen a sibling react that way; usually there is an I-got-mine-now-you-need-to-get-yours attitude. Not my Zoo Keeper. He felt the pain and he wanted to spare his little brother. That’s empathy.

I’ve seen arguments that the media was not saying that autism was responsible for the murderer’s rampage at Sandy Hook, merely that being autistic would have informed his life experience. So, the media’s response shouldn’t be seen as offensive, but as a teachable moment. Because I think some of the media was asserting autism as the cause, and I’ve already addressed that, I’ll put aside the first part and just address the second. In that case, it very well could have been a teachable moment. The problem, then, is that the media didn’t use it to teach anything. After a tragedy like Sandy Hook, people are looking for a reason. They want something to help them make sense of something that’s never going to make sense. More than someone to blame, they want something to blame. Knowing the identity of the murderer isn’t enough; people want to know why it happened so that they can make sure it doesn’t happen to them. When the media alleges that the murderer had an autism spectrum disorder, but doesn’t bother to put that in any sort of context or explain anything about autism, that makes autism a lightening rod for fear. And that fear isn’t attached to an abstract concept of a neurological disorder, it’s attached to real people who have autism. And it sets the treatment of people with disabilities in our society back decades. That’s not empathetic. It’s irresponsible.

This new-to-me fact about Dylan Hockley’s autism and the mainstream media’s apparent ignorance of it, their ignorance about autism in general, makes me appreciate Rachel Maddow all the more. Because Rachel doesn’t report on things she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t make assertions without the facts to back them up. And, if she gets the facts wrong, she corrects them on air and apologizes for the mistake. That’s called integrity and it’s an unfortunately rare thing of beauty. The rest of the “news” media, political or no, could take a lesson in true journalism from Rachel Maddow. I wish they would.