The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 26, 2012

Aaron Likens, guest columnist: Generalizations are dangerous — and wrong

By Aaron Likens
Special to The Globe

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — “Asperger Syndrome.” That’s what I saw on the news headline in bright, bold, red letters on Friday, Dec. 14.

If I didn’t already know what it was, because I have it, I probably would have been afraid of it. In the article that followed, the autism spectrum wasn’t properly explained. To the uninformed, the only thing to gather was that all things autism are dangerous.

What is being left out of the conversation is that those were Asperger’s, and other autism spectrum disorders, are far more likely to be a victim of a crime than the one committing it. And often times, the person on the spectrum will not speak up about it because of communication issues.

What is also being left out of the conversation is perhaps the most important line about the autism spectrum: If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve only met one person with autism.

It is dangerous and irresponsible to generalize autism like I have heard in the past few days. Each person along the autism spectrum can be radically unique to the next. As for myself, I’m a public speaker. Yet, the next person you meet with Asperger’s may have a difficult time engaging in a one-on-one conversation. I heard one speaker on the news say that all people with Asperger’s are great in math. This is untrue, too. Some can be and may be amazingly good at it, but another may be more of an abstract thinker and be good in the areas of music and art.

The true problem with generalizing is not for those of us who know we have it now, but for those who are undiagnosed. I’m 29 now, and I got my diagnosis at the age of 20. I didn’t know what it was, so I looked it up on the Internet and read that, “people with Asperger Syndrome will never have a job, never have friends and will never be happy.”

Sadly, I believed those words, and my life was destroyed for over a year as I descended into the deepest abyss of depression imaginable. However, I discovered writing as a means to express myself and learned that those hideous, hopeless words were a complete lie.

But what about those who are getting their diagnosis now? And for younger children, how open will parents be after hearing that their 2- or 3-year-old has Asperger Syndrome? What will their reaction be? Will it be, “Wait, Asperger’s, isn’t that…”?

To be honest, I have turned off the coverage because I’ve heard too many generalizing of facts and doomsday reports on Asperger’s. I know parents are worried about the backlash, because I’ve been contacted by many expressing their fears. Unfortunately, if the general public hears the same information over and over it will become fact.

The tipping point for me was when I heard an expert say, “People with Asperger’s have no empathy or emotions.” While it is true some may experience a lack of empathy, many of us, like myself, have it. And on the topic of emotions — I think we have more feeling than those not on the spectrum, because it is so hard for us to express how we feel. Also, the world may view us as lacking empathy, as we may have a flat affect, meaning you can’t judge how we are feeling by our facial expressions, but behind our cold exterior is a world of wondrous thoughts going on as we try and process the world around us.

My motto is, “understanding is the foundation for hope.” Right now my heart aches for many reasons. The tragedy that occurred is beyond words. Moving forward though, at the way the media has portrayed Asperger Syndrome, what type of image will we have? Will we be feared as monsters? Will friends begin to wonder about us? I feel those with Asperger’s have so much potential, but if the chasm of misunderstanding grows, the already difficult experience of growing up will become more difficult. I’ve been thankful the past two months to have spoken to over 5,000 students on the subject of Asperger’s and tolerance, but that isn’t even a measurable fraction of the students in America. For some, their first introduction to Asperger’s may be this tragedy.

Lost in this all is each person. If we generalize, we are doing a disservice to each and every person who lives life on the autism spectrum. Maybe the news, when the time is right, will give the public a better view of the autism spectrum in all its glory, challenge and mystery. But above all else, I hope the message is relayed that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve only met one person with autism.

Aaron Likens, of St. Louis, was named a 2012 Missouri Mental Health Champion by the Missouri Mental Health Foundation, based on his work to increase awareness and understanding of autism. His book, “Finding Kansas: Decoding the Enigma of Asperger’s Syndrome” was released earlier this year.