This morning as I scanned my Facebook feed – catching up on my friends’ most recent activities and opinions – I came across something that quite literally made my heart ache.
A friend had put up a link to a news story about a Christchurch looter; someone who had looted a quake striken home after the major earthquake of last week. This looter had become the “face of looting”, and had been treated harshly by the court to “send a message” to other looters. (By the sounds of the news report, he may have also been treated harshly by some vigilantes, since he appeared in court with a black eye.) There has been a lot of understandable outrage at the looters, taking money, jewelery and valuables from people who have already lost so much.
This man stole a light-fitting and two light-bulbs.
My friend was outraged at the news story which explained that this man had autism and other unspecified mental disabilities, my friend’s words were as follows:
This is bullcrap. Gary Numan has asbergers too, and he doesn’t steal stuff, he makes cool music with synthesizers. An inability to read human emotion and respond to it does not make you a thief. Being a thief makes you a thief.
We’ll ignore the mis-spelling since that is the least of the offences here. My response was:
“An inability to read emotion and respond to it” doesn’t sum up Aspergers either. Autism is very complex, and having uncontrollable obsessions is part-and-parcel with it. Huge clue: He stole lightbulbs. Not money. Not things he can on-sell: Light-bulbs. Stealing is not acceptable, regardless of mental condition, absolutely. But please don’t compare him to someone else who has Aspergers and then dismiss the poor man as evil, that’s far too simplistic.
I want to use my own blog to add further comment to those points.
Part of the problem with the public’s understanding of autism, is how much autism differs from person to person. There are the same underlying categories of impairment, but the way it manifests and the severity differs, meaning you can’t simply compare one autistic person to another and use that as a basis for moral judgment.
We also need to take into account that the other mental disabilities weren’t specified; we simply do not know everything that this poor man was living with.
Then there’s the question of the impact of the quake itself, on someone who requires routine, predictability, and struggles with new situations. It’s hard to have your world turned upside down for anyone, all the harder for someone who has disabilities. If this man was anything like my autistic son, he would have turned to his obsessions as a source of comfort and calm, and wouldn’t have been able to control it in such a stressful situation. (I’ve previously written about my son’s current obsession, in a post about clocks. I could easily imagine him collecting them in the same this man did his light fixtures.)
This doesn’t mean theft is OK if done by mentally disabled people. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished, corrected, and held to account. (Unless the person was mentally insane thus affecting their mens rea, but that’s not the extreme we’re talking about here as far as I can tell). But it sure as hell does mean they shouldn’t be held up as “the face of looting”, or held up as an example of how harshly the law will treat quake looters.
I could imagine my own son, as an adult man, living his life as best he can, following all the lessons I’d taught him, being totally thrown by something as life-shattering as a major earthquake. I don’t think he’d cope well, no, I know he wouldn’t cope well. I would expect him to turn to his obsessions for comfort and calm. I would hope that if he did, the law and the courts would take his disabilities into account in sentencing. And I would hope that people wouldn’t publicly comment about him in the way my friend did on Facebook.
I’m not mad about this, just sad, because I am yet again reminded of how the struggles of our children are made so much worse by the poor understanding of autism, and the prejudices which go along with that misunderstanding.
[Edit: My friend has since taken down his comment about the news story, which is great.]