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It appears the Virginia Tech killer, once diagnosed with autism, may have suffered from a milder form called Asperger’s Syndrome -- so once more, a national tragedy that we all wish could be black and white is plunged into a gray area.

Many people have been criticized for not intervening before the tragedy; some thoughts written by my friend Chris Durrill address why an intervention never appears to have occurred, better than anything I could have written, so with her permission I’m printing it here. It leaves us with some possible insight into why Cho’s behavior wasn’t investigated more thoroughly before.

In Defense of Cho’s Peers

You’re on the playground and a kid with staring eyes walks up to you as you come off the slide and says, “Heebie-jeebies. I love peanut butter.” Right in your face, in a voice that sounds straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining”. Think “Redrum, redrum”.

What do you do? You’re eight, so try to remember what you were like then:

a. Laugh because it sounds so silly?
b. Parrot it right back at him?
c. Push him aside and run away crying for your mother because he’s weird and scary?
d. Lash out because he’s in your face and you don’t like it?
e. Or do you say, “Oh, hi – I like you too. Wanna teeter totter?”

Chances are “e” is the last thing you’d do.

Who is this kid? Did you just come face to face with cartoon artist Mel Blanc’s grandchild, carrying on the family tradition?

No, you’ve encountered a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, and nobody bothered to prepare you for someone like him.

Let’s go down the road a few years:

You’re in Junior High, a hotbed of hormones, rapidly changing interests, who’s hot and who’s not. A kid sitting at the desk next to you in Biology class won’t stop tapping his pencil on the lab table you share. This is annoying and distracting; plus he obviously didn’t shower after P.E. and stares blankly through you with a baseball cap jammed down over his eyebrows. What do you do?

(Again, try to remember what you were like at fourteen.) Do you:

a. Ignore him?
b. Reach over and slug him one because he bugs the heck out of you?
c. Raise your hand and complain loudly to the teacher?
d. Holler at him to cut it out, you’re trying to study for the upcoming test?
e. Say, “Hi -- mind not doing that? I’m trying to study and that tapping really bothers me.” in a civil tone of voice.

Again, I’ll bet it’s not “e”.

And the pain that make’s you uncomfortable? Asperger’s Syndrome.

Once again, there’s a good chance nobody briefed you or your classmates about him, though news gets around fast – and most of it’s not kind. How are you to know he can’t help being the way he is, and that if you learn to ignore his more bizarre habits and treat him with a little kindness, he might not be such a bad guy? All you know is he’s weird, has no sense of personal space, and that stare creeps you out.

Anyway, you probably don’t want to be nice to him because you’re afraid that if you do, you’ll get teased by the more popular kids and tarred with the same brush – at age fourteen that’s the last thing you want.

You’re a Junior in English Lit. class. Behind you sits the class weirdo – the guy everybody either ignores or teases, who won’t say anything even if you offer him a buck, who glares at everyone. They say he’s anything from a crack-head to flat out insane, and he once beat his sisters up.

It’s his turn to read out loud, something nobody wants to do – but when it’s your turn, dawg, it’s your turn.

Great, he won’t do his part and read aloud like everyone else already has. The teacher gets annoyed, then firm – when he does finally start reading, it’s in a bizarre voice. What do you do?

a. Ignore his obvious gaffe while trying not to giggle too loudly, because you’re an honor student; honor students don’t react to such obvious uncool spazziness, but it’s too funny not to react somehow.
b. Laugh because he sounds like something from the Cartoon Network.
c. Throw paper wads and laugh really loud out of relief - for once it’s not you being jeered at by the class because you’re learning disabled and sound like a reeeeeeeeee-tard.
d. Yell something racist because if Monkey-Boy can’t be bothered to learn English, he doesn’t belong here -and what’s with the “Redrum” voice anyway?
e. Ask the rest of the class to cool it -- the dude’s obviously having a rough time, no use making it rougher.

“e”, once again, may very well come out as the last choice.

You’re twenty-something. You made it into a good school and everything that goes with that. Party! Prestige! And – uh oh – hard work!

Your roommate’s moving in at the same time. This is your first time out of the house; you can’t wait to shake off your small town ways and be the MAN! This guy had better be ready for some serious fun Animal House style – uh, why is he staring at you like that? Then some little woman who must be his mother comes up to you in the middle of moving this guy’s stuff to the side and timidly says, “Please, help him.”

Say what?

Once more: What do you do?

a. Blow her off. You have more important things to do like find somewhere you can use your new fake I.D. to score a keg.
b. Nod and say, “Yeah, no prob”, as you unpack the beer bong you made in Auto Shop as a high school graduation present for yourself. There’s a party over at Sigma Nu for new pledges tonight, and you don’t want to miss it.
c. Stare at her for a second, thinking, “I left my little brother back home – the last thing I want to do is baby-sit this loser.” Then blow them both off because you have better things to do.
d. Nod and smile politely while thinking, “I wonder if it’s not too late to ask for a different roommate? This dude gives me the creeps!”
e. Take her aside and quietly ask what’s up, and what you can do to help her kid get along during your freshman year; then do whatever you can to help this odd person, who locks himself in his room after classes and obsessively downloads the same song over and over again, when he isn’t snarling at everybody in sight.

You know your answers. There’s no shame in any of them.

There’s no shame in any of this.

If you don’t know that someone is mentally ill or has special needs, and it isn’t as obvious as Down’s Syndrome, their behavior can be annoying, amusing, or downright threatening. How do you respond? Lash out? Walk away? Tell them to cut it out? All these reactions are natural.

To expect people to automatically greet the oddling with open arms despite an off-putting appearance or behavior, without advance preparation, is brutally unfair. He or she might need a friend, and genuinely not know how to get one. And you? You shouldn’t be expected by his parents, educators, or authorities to take on someone with a condition that you weren’t prepared in advance to handle kindly – or at least cautiously – without a little advance warning.

Advanced warning or not, be prepared to give the oddball a break – you never know who you’re dealing with.


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 5th, 2007 08:47 am (UTC)
Yes, dealing with this problem from the ground up would be the best way to deal with our anguish over what happened, and it's so difficult. I'm a person who likes things black and white ... but this just isn't.
May. 4th, 2007 04:39 pm (UTC)
"Advanced warning or not, be prepared to give the oddball a break – you never know who you’re dealing with."

Why do you think I tolerate you?

Seriously, good article.
May. 5th, 2007 08:49 am (UTC)
Thanks -- well, congrats to Chris, that is, and I'm sure thanks from her.

And yeah, I was the oddball as a kid. I wrote science fiction, hated sports, was painfully shy and didn't care how I dressed. It's a wonder I wasn't on CNN years ago.
May. 5th, 2007 11:18 am (UTC)
You and me both, bud. I remember laughing my ass off when the school bully got his leg broken.

Hey it was a month off before he called me on my stutter again.
May. 6th, 2007 07:47 am (UTC)
I would have squeed with joy if our school bully broke his leg. The worst part is, after all these years I'm still not ashamed of feeling that way -- he deserved it. Sadly, the last time I encountered him he hadn't changed one whit.

Guess I can see why you and I gravitate toward Xander's character.
May. 6th, 2007 12:14 pm (UTC)
Can't argue with that,
May. 4th, 2007 06:57 pm (UTC)
That is excellent stuff.

Although I bet that the parents of every teen with Asperger's, and many of those teens themselves, howled 'Oh No!' when any possibility of that young man having it was suggested. There will be people all over the place now feeling justified in asking that 'the weird kid' be removed from the class, the school, the community because they might shoot someone. Sad.
May. 5th, 2007 08:55 am (UTC)
As I understand it, he was officially diagnosed with mild autism when he was very young, and from what I've researched he fits the profile for Asperger's perfectly; but yes, some will certainly claim otherwise.

I do believe that in some cases attempts to dump special needs students directly into general population are a well-intentioned mistake, but you're right -- people are going to go overboard in their attempts to kick out everyone who's in any way different. Speaking as someone who was the weird kid, I can only imagine how emotionally damaged I would have been by something like that. Of course, I probably wasn't as different as I thought I was at the time ...
May. 5th, 2007 01:32 am (UTC)
Welcome to my world. Join the computer geeks where Aspies abound.
May. 5th, 2007 08:56 am (UTC)
I hadn't considered that, it's a very good point.
May. 5th, 2007 09:20 am (UTC)
I ran across a comment this week that posited that the only reason Apollo 13 returned safely was due to the high number of Aspies that gravitate to that line of work.

It's all a matter of channelling your obsession.
May. 6th, 2007 07:44 am (UTC)
Having read the book about Apollo 13 ("Lost Moon"), I think I'd have to agree. And isn't channeling talent and personality into the right career a major part of success and happiness?
May. 5th, 2007 03:16 am (UTC)
The whole thing, if I interpret right, is one long string of dropped balls, one after the other. For every Cho, there's five Asperger's kids who are given as much socialization as possible while being surrounded by people who if they don't understand the condtion, at least are willing to work with them. I've found myself in situations dealing with people who later on proved to have a problem. At the time all I knew was that they were a pain in the backside and everything I did only made them worse - only later did I find out that they had a mental illness and probably couldn't help the way they were. Had I known, I don't think I would have discriminated against them, but I would have been willing to at least cut them some slack without walking away feeling like I'd been sledge-hammered.
Anyway, I hope my article has helped somehow, somewhere.
May. 5th, 2007 08:58 am (UTC)
I hope so too. I've had the same experience you described ... I'll bet many of us have.
May. 5th, 2007 10:24 am (UTC)
Any local responses to this?
May. 6th, 2007 07:43 am (UTC)
It doesn't actually appear in our newspaper until Wednesday -- I'll keep you posted if there are any letters, or burned effigies, or anything like that.
May. 5th, 2007 03:40 am (UTC)
A very good point.

I wish someone in the news would make it.

Of course, mental illness is painful, but how would you even begin to help a child like that? Especially if he has a condition that predisposes him to self-isolation.
May. 5th, 2007 08:44 am (UTC)
Somebody in the news. *snorts* The media makes me crazy, and I work in the media.

Agreed, figuring how to help people with those conditions is a huge challenge. How do you help someone who refuses to be helped? It's something law enforcement faces every day, and many other agencies are also finding it an impossible challenge. If you force them into treatment, you're called inhumane and uncaring; if you don't, you're blamed for what they do to themselves and others. It's no wonder nobody wants to deal with the problem.

May. 5th, 2007 08:36 pm (UTC)
Gah, don't tell me that. I'm a journalism major and already I'm kind of regretting it.

Can I ask about your work? Newspaper, online media, etc..?
May. 6th, 2007 07:42 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm a part timer. About 20 years ago I started writing news stories and features for a small weekly paper here in Albion, and a couple of years after that I started writing my humor column, "Slightly Off the Mark". The publisher owns two other weekly papers, and now my column appears in them, too. I've always suspected more people see my column through my e-mail list and my LJ than in the paper, but I'm not sure I want to be proven right ...

You could be one of the new breed -- a journalist who wants to report facts, rather than slant every article to support your own political agenda, and to report what's actually news rather than what grabs the most attention. It would be a nice change.
May. 18th, 2007 04:26 am (UTC)
Very thought-provoking column - what kind of response have you had?
May. 19th, 2007 01:37 am (UTC)
response so far
A lot! By e-mail, LJ, and even an actual, honest to goodness, snail mail letter (From a retired English teacher!) I didn't think I'd really get enough new words sent to me for a sequel column, but I did -- so there'll be one following along.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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