The December 14th shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, have opened up a Pandora’s box of issues related to mental health. One controversy in particular relates to the shooter Adam Lanza’s alleged identification as a person with a mild form of autism spectrum disorder called Asperger’s syndrome. This hearsay diagnosis in turn has ignited a strong rebuttal from the autism community that Lanza isn’t anywhere near the spectrum. “There really is no evidence that links autism or Asperger’s to violence,” said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at the nonprofit advocacy group Autism Speaks and a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Whether or not Adam Lanza is on the autism spectrum or has a personality disorder, or is a sociopath, or has some other mental health diagnosis, it is clear that he was a mentally disturbed individual. And as such, like it or not, he falls within the domain of the neurodiversity movement. Some individuals may use this event to discredit the neurodiversity movement, suggesting that it is inappropriate to “celebrate neurodiversity” when the monstrous acts of people such as Adam Lanza clearly show that there is nothing wonderful to celebrate.
However, just because Adam Lanza reveals the ”dark side of neurodiversity” doesn’t mean that we should discredit the entire movement. We celebrate biodiversity and yet there are diversities such as the AIDS virus, the staphylococcus bacteria, and other microbial monsters that kill by the millions. We honor and celebrate cultural diversity, and yet we have the historical examples of cultures such as Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the Hutu massacre of Tutsi’s in Rwanda to remind us that there is also a dark side this type of diversity.
The fact is that despite these monsterous aberrations, diversity is still a good thing by and large. Biodiversity is good because it ensures that there will be a wide range of foods, medicines, and life forms to support and nurture the planet. Cultural diversity is ultimately beneficent because the world needs a variety of perspectives, a cornucopia of human potentials, a spectrum of cultural expressions, to make planet earth an interesting place to live in.
Similarly, neurodiversity is ultimately a good thing because having a broad range of brains in the world helps ensure that there are a range of human possibilities out there to enrich humanity. Of course neurodiversity is not without its own pernicious elements. The Adam Lanzas of the world remind us of that. As Judy Singer, the autism activist who coined the term neurodiversity, puts it: “If the neurodiversity movement is to mature, it cannot hide its head in the sand, but must look at the idea that not all Nature’s experiments are inherently good.” (cited in The Power of Neurodiversity, p. 217). Reminding ourselves of this from time to time will help ensure that our advocacy for people with neurodiverse conditions remains free of hypocrisy and distortion.