Dear teacher,

The first school day after a horrific mass murder in an elementary school, you latched on media accusations that the shooter had Asperger’s and assigned your students to write a three paragraph essay about it. The following day, you attached a very vague article about changes to the DSM to the assignment.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. People with Autism range from non-verbal and rigidly limited functioning to the high functioning, extremely bright people with Asperger’s. The treatments and prognosis for people on the Autism spectrum vary so greatly that it really doesn’t matter what the DSM says or does. The DSM writes labels. People are not labels.

Asperger’s is a developmental disorder, not a mental illness. People with Asperger’s feel and express emotions. They do not lack empathy for others. They have difficulty understanding non-verbal cues and are extra sensitive to light, sound and touch. They are considered socially awkward because they are bluntly honest instead of superficial or manipulative. People with Asperger’s are frequently the victims of bullying and other abuses because they trust other people. When the media describes people with Asperger’s as though they are sociopaths, they do great harm to all of the people with Asperger’s. They are people like my son, who is extremely bright, funny and kind. My son, who walks to and from his food service job every day and socializes with his friends on the weekends, is a graduate of our school system. My son, who has a perfectly normal sibling relationship with his brother, your student, is not now and never will be, a danger to himself or others.

Why not ask the students to discuss the inclusion of video game addiction in the new DSM when obsessive personality disorder and addiction are already included in the manual? What about the idea that video games and movies can cause someone to commit murder? Maybe you should ask the students to compare the shooter’s connection to the school with the recent shooting at Inskip Elementary here in Knoxville and discuss mental health screenings for school employees. Since the media identified the wrong person as the killer and social media immediately plastered the wrong person’s face and contact information everywhere, maybe you should have asked the students to write about the damage that social media can inflict on people. As every person in that school died from bullets fired from a gun, maybe you should have asked the students to write about safe gun ownership versus gun fetishism in America. You could ask students to write about the potential for human damage inflicted by a handgun versus a Bushmaster AR-15. Maybe the students should talk about access to, availability of and stigma attached to mental healthcare is America. Then again, maybe these heavy discussions need to be had by adults now and teenagers later.

I know that your intention with this assignment was to give students a safe outlet to express their feelings about what happened in Newtown. Given the short time that has elapsed since the brutal crime and the lack of days left in this semester to appropriately discuss students misconceptions about Asperger’s, assigning the students to write a paper about warning signs that someone is a danger to themselves or others and how to seek help for themselves or others would seem to be a much more important subject for an essay. Ultimately, your current topic can be covered in one sentence.

A diagnosis is a small part of a person and people are not defined by labels.

One thought on “Dear teacher,

  1. This happened in Knoxville??? I am mortified for you, your sons and the rest of the students under this teacher’s responsibility. That is ignorance, plain and simple, and real damage can be done. I am so, so sorry to hear this.

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