Mental illness and autism— not the same thing

We all journey through our lives with the gifts and limitations that comprise who we are. For most people that means they have the “average” package, or that they possess attributes that put them in the middle of the bell curve.

For some people, however, who they are is off of the average, but we have, I hope, learned not to describe people by who they are not. We do not refer to our support staff as non-certificated, nor do we speak of “foreign language” courses any more; we teach world languages, one of which is English.

Nor do we use the male gender to refer to everyone when we write. We take that extra part of a second to write “he or she,” “his or her,” or we write in the plural, “they.”

Over the last week, I have heard reporters engage in wild speculation on the television in a manner that I find inaccurate, offensive and hurtful, and I want to point this out:

There is no nexus, no connection, no legitimate reason to link in casual conversation the terms “mental illness” and “Asperger’s syndrome.” There is no ethical justification for suggesting that a person who is deeply traumatized and unwell mentally is mentally ill because he or she has, or may have, a diagnosis of autism in some form.

To be clear: Being in some manner autistic is an aspect of how someone goes through life. We should never suggest that this person is “not normal.” We should never associate inexplicable behavior with a categorical aspect of how some people exist.

Go ahead and say that a mass murderer is mentally ill. No argument from me. Never suggest that mental illness and autism are in any way associated. Not in my presence and not in our school community.

There are students among us, students who are children of our colleagues and friends, students who navigate their time on earth with a variety of unique characteristics. We know them, value our friendships with them, teach them and love them.

Let’s all get our language straight on this one. See the whole person first, the “syndrome” second.

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