Friday, July 7, 2017

The Myth of "Good Guys With Guns"

It’s been a few years since I first heard the phrase, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I just accepted those words without question, for quite a long time.  Today I see them differently.

Growing up on a farm in Georgia, I was around guns from the very beginning.  My grandfather’s first cousin was a sheriff, and my great-grandfather was the county agent where we lived.  Both men carried guns all their lives.  Guns were something to be respected, but not feared.  

When I was six years old, my grandmother shot a copperhead that cornered my dog, and I almost stepped on.  She didn’t carry a gun, but she used them when needed.  In my own small way, I’d experienced good guys and gals with guns from a very early age.

Anyone with a lawman in the family imagines the police as good guys, and sometimes they need guns to protect us.  I wish that wasn’t true, but I know it is.

None of those things disturb me in the least.  The thing I don’t like is the idea that “good guys with guns” has been extended to include an amorphous gun carrying public, who could supposedly protect us from some of the recent mass killings that have been in the news these past year years.

“If one of the teachers had a gun, he would have stopped Adam Lanza in Newtown.”

“If one of the Charlestown churchgoers had a gun, Dylann Roof would have been stopped in his tracks.”

“If the other driver had a gun, those people would not have been shot on the freeway.”

Statements like those appear with disturbing regularity. In this essay I’m not going to argue for or against gun control or gun carry laws.  My concerns are more practical, and they show why this idea simply is not real.

Most mass shootings are conducted with rifles or full-size large capacity handguns.  A bystander armed with a nothing but an easily concealed pocket pistol would have very little chance of stopping such a gunman.  It’s a nice idea, but not one that would work out most times, particularly for the person with the pocket pistol.

It's sort of like the guy who walks up to a grizzly and shoots it with a pocket .22 to see what will happen.  It draws attention to the shooter, and annoys the bear, with unfortunate results all around.

Handguns for personal protection are designed for self defense at very close range.  They are meant to stop an attacker who is right upon you, in the course of an assault, rape, or robbery.  Self-defense shootings generally happen at distances of less than ten feet, and even then, statistics show that many of the shots miss their target.

One of the main attributes of a handgun for personal protection is that it be small enough to be concealed and carried every day.  That means a short barrel – typically two inches, and a stubby grip.  Those things make it pocket size, but also limit the range at which most shooters can hit a target.

Most of the mass shootings that have featured in the news have unfolded over much greater distances than those pocket guns would be effective.  To have a chance of stopping a gunman fifty feet away, you need a powerful gun with a four or six inch barrel and considerable training to use it effectively under stress at that range.

Guns of that size are way too big to conceal under most clothing.  Casual gun owners lack the training to use their guns at all in those situations. “Good guys with guns” breaks down in the face of handgun limitations, lack of combat shooting skills, and finally lack of training in shooting and responding under stress.

For many years I shot heavy .45 automatics in combat shooting competition.  I learned through hard experience that it takes a lot of training and discipline to hit targets at 50 feet, particularly under stress when targets and obstacles are popping up all around you.  It takes even more training to avoid shooting up everything around the targets.  People are quick to say, “shoot the gunman” without considering the hostage is just as likely to get shot, without a very skilled marksman.

It is also an unfortunate truth that an untrained handgun owner is more likely to be shot by his own gun, either by accident or on purpose, than he(she) is to use it successfully in self-defense.  Furthermore a casual owner is more likely to leave a gun unsecured which results in theft, accidents with children, etc. 

Today I have friends who are my age, who still shoot regularly.  I see how many hours of training they have invested.  As it happens, most of them are working police.  Few of the individuals who carry guns for personal protection follow such training regimens, nor are they required to under current law.  We are a long way from having a population that is both armed and trained to defend the public, and I don't think that's the kind of society most of us want to live in anyway.

We take our freedom and safety for granted - perhaps more than we should.  It's been almost sixty years since science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote, "An armed society is a polite society," and in those years we've seen the emergence of many alternate scenarios that depict what happens when much of society is armed.  The "Mad Max" movies and real-life Somalia or Cartagena give us more disturbing visions of what an armed society might be.

With all due respect, as a person who as been around guns all my life and who knows and respects many gun owners, I just don’t think “good guys with guns” is the answer it’s presented to be.

The actual problem, and the answers, have much more to do with humans than guns.  I blame the spate of publicized shootings on ever-increasing levels of anger and alienation, coupled with easy access to weapons and imagined glorification by the media.  Take away the anger, and you’ll solve more problems than any form of gun control will ever do.   


John Elder Robison


John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

An Ethical Dilemma For Autism Organizations




This year, I have seen the continuation of some troubling trends from autism advocacy groups.  One major group booked me to speak at their conference (for which they will pay me) even as they assembled sessions with autistic panelists who are not getting paid.

Another organization – involved in funding research – talked with me about their proposal to recruit an autistic person to pull together a group of autistic advocates to identify adult needs.  The organization’s staffer (who is not himself autistic) will be paid his regular salary to move the effort along, but the autistic leader of the effort was asked to volunteer her time “until the program gets funded next year.”

I objected to both situations.  Autism advocacy groups are here to support and help autistic people.  When the group’s leadership chooses an autistic person to take the stage and share his or her ideas, I feel they should be paid for doing so.  We know that unemployment is a chronic issue for autistic adults, and it follows that money is tight for many.  Does it not make sense that our advocacy groups would therefore act to relieve that stress, not worsen it?

It’s particularly disturbing to me when I see non-autistic staffers at these organizations collecting salaries while the autistic people they are supposed to benefit are left hanging.  They would not have jobs, if not for us.

I’m not suggesting that every panelist at a conference should be paid thousands of dollars.  But all panelists contribute to the success of the event, and that should be recognized.  Some payment is in order.  In addition, panelists should be offered compensation for the costs of attendance.

As for research organizations . . . when autistic people get involved in shaping research, they should be paid appropriately for their contribution.   If you are a researcher, and you are seeking guidance from autistic people, the ethical rule is simple:  Are you getting paid?  If the answer is yes, then they should be paid too.

Working toward a degree is a form of getting payment, to be clear.  The only circumstance where you might ask for volunteer participation is if you are all volunteers for some greater cause.  For example, you might seek volunteers to spread awareness as part of a church group or mission, or you might encourage fellow volunteers for other nonprofit causes.  

It's beyond the scope of this essay to explore how much pay is fair, but a guide would be the pay ranges of the other people involved in the project and the value of your contribution relative to theirs. 

You might also be willing to volunteer in hopes of getting work in the future, but that's a slippery slope to exploitation.  Only you can be the judge.  

Autistic people have been exploited for too many years.  Be part of the solution, not someone who perpetrates the problem. 


Thoughts anyone?


John Elder Robison


John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Division in the Autism Community - what next for us?





One of the greatest divisions in the autism community is between seekers of a cure, and opponents.  Someone new to the autism community could easily be forgiven for asking how this might be.  Autism is, after all, a disability.  Why would anyone be opposed to curing it?

Autism is not a disease.  It’s a developmental difference that is part of us for life.  In that way autism might be compared to congenital blindness, deafness, or a missing limb.  Those are other disabilities people generally live with for the rest of their lives. 

In the broader disability community there are significant differences of opinion when it comes to assistive technologies.  For example, some deaf people embrace cochlear implants while others reject the idea just as firmly.  If there is one area of broad agreement, it is that the people with the disabilities should have the right to choose assistance or not.  Nothing should be forced upon us. The past few years have seen widespread acceptance of the idea of self determination which is a very good thing.

That brings us to the autism controversy.  Autism is – at its heart – a communication disorder.  Autistics may have a different view of autism but that is the centerpiece of the current definition.   Some autistic people may be strong communicators and gifted thinkers, and their ability to chart their own course is beyond doubt.  What about autistic people who are not able to communicate very successfully?  There are some people in our community whose cognitive disabilities preclude effective communication and prevent self-advocacy.

Autistic people with such severe disability are generally identified in early childhood.  The response of parents has typically been to ask for help with their children.  When faced with an autistic child many parents have reacted with distress, calling for a cure for autism and eradication of what they see as a terrible disability.

Public awareness of autism has increased sharply in the past 20 years.  We now have a generation of young adults who have grown to adulthood after being children those parents wanted so much to cure.  Some are grateful for their parents advocacy, but many are angry.  They reject what they see as harmful interventions forced on them by misguided parents, and they reject the concept that they needed to be cured.

Those young adults have led the move to position autism as a civil rights issue.  They believe most of our presumed disability is actually a mismatch between how we are, and the expectations of modern western society.  They have done a great service by identifying instances of discrimination and marginalization.

Alongside those advocates there is a group of autistic people who take a very different position.  They see autism as a disability, and they wish they could be rid of it. 

Finally there are parents of autistic kids with very severe disability.  As those kids grow to adulthood the parents face hard choices – who will take care of my child when we are gone?  They debate housing and support issues and often find themselves in conflict with autistic advocates with sharply opposing views.

It’s very hard for members of the three groups to find common ground.  People tend to see autism through the lens of personal experience.  An autistic college student who has trouble with organization and social skills is likely to view autism very differently from a parent whose child is non verbal, cognitively disabled, and self injurious. 

The autistic lawyer or engineer who can say "I am autistic and proud to be different" is likely exhibiting a very different set of feelings from a more disabled autistic person who has never been able to hold a job or form satisfying relationships.  It's important to be mindful that both sets of feelings exist in the community.

It’s as if people are seeing totally different conditions, and indeed some say the spectrum is too diverse for that reason.  Yet the science shows that similar biological differences lie at the foundation of both forms of autism.  While there is no one “autism gene” many of the genes we have associated with autism tend to affect people at all points on the spectrum.  Other genes – like those associated with fragile x – tend to be associated with both autism and intellectual disability. 

Here’s where we stand with autism today:

Parents have led the fight to get autism services into preschools and schools. Thanks to their advocacy most states cover some level of autism service.  The range of services is still very limited but the landscape is a far cry from the one I faced as a kid in the 1960s.

Some parents opened a Pandora’s box when they asked where autism came from.  When autism was first recognized in the 1930s it was seen as idiopathic; in other words there was no known cause.  Parents had a hard time accepting that uncertainty; some began making associations between life events and the observed onset of autistic symptoms.  That led to some parents blaming vaccines for causing autism.

Today I see the vaccine issue as symbolic of a breakdown in trust in our public health authorities.  The fact is, people need something to believe in.  When medical science cannot provide good answers pseudo-science and superstition take hold, with potentially disastrous results.  Advocates call that out today, even as the science community has yet to provide satisfactory answers the public can understand.

Science tells us that toxic metals can make people appear autistic.  Injuries and disease can have similar effects.  Do those causes account for most cases of autism?  Most science says no, and the underlying cause for the rest remains unexplained except to say that autism appears to have been woven into the human genome for a very long time. 

For a number of years I have taken the position that it does not matter how we came to be autistic.  What matters is what we do with our lives now.  We can push for social accommodations and we can encourage research to solve our medical problems.  We can look for places to work and live that will be most comfortable. 

Advocates have made a powerful case for the employment and accommodation of autistic people.  The emergent neurodiversity movement has made great strides in getting schools and employers to see the unique contributions autistic people make to society and the workplace.

Self advocates and parents are both active in calling out and fighting discrimination against autistic people.  This is hugely important.   Self advocates in particular are speaking out against abuse of autistic people by caregivers.  In some cases those caregivers are hired help; other times they are family. 

We’ve seen conflict with parents who believe they are the best advocates and caregivers for their children. The fact is, severely disabled people are most likely to be abused by family members.  That said, most family members are not abusers.  Parents may see themselves as unfairly indicted while self advocates point to the statistics and their undeniable truth.  We should be mindful of the reality that statistics won’t tell us what happens in any particular home even as they advise us to be cautious.

Advocates have pushed hard for self-determination.  To that end, they have opposed guardianship and institutionalization of autistic people in group homes.  They rightly say both lead to abuse.  Parents respond that some children cannot make choices for themselves and that leads to a discussion of whether that’s true, or whether the issue is parenting or communication failure, or simply imposing the parent’s will on the disabled person.  Needless to say, emotions run high.

Shame remains a huge problem in the autism community.  Parents may be unable to accept the reality of their autistic child and they may spend a lifetime in denial or misguided efforts to cure.  Studies and life stories have shown us how destructive that can be yet the problem remains.  Autistic people are harmed by growing up with the stigma of being broken or less than other children.  Feelings of inferiority and poor self-image follow many of us well into adulthood.

We’ve seen the emergence of a social model of autism that paints many of our challenges as a mismatch between ourselves and society.  That's a very valuable perspective, one with a long but little known history.  We might look back to the island of Martha's Vineyard in the 19th century - congenital deafness was very common there and there were whole communities where everyone used sign language.  In that place, deafness was not seen as a disability.  In Psychology Today I cited a more recent situation in the southwest Pacific where autistic people appear to have led their communities (both literally and figuratively) as navigators.  Some people now see autism as primarily a social issue, but social solutions are not all that’s needed for the more challenged members of our community.  

For those individuals the medical complications associated with autism are paramount.  Recent studies have shown sharply reduced life expectancies for autistic adults. We live with a wide variety of real and challenging medical conditions like epilepsy, anxiety, and intestinal distress.  For all we’ve spent on autism research this past decade we’ve made precious little tangible progress on those fronts.

In some discussions I see autistic advocates present the evolving social model of autism as "the correct understanding," when in fact it complements but does not replace the medical model that has existed since the 1930s.  The same is true for the embrace of the idea of neurodiversity.  We mustn't confuse the reality of disability for many of us with the fact that some of us have rare gifts too.  Said another way, we should embrace our exceptionality but not deny that the suffering and challenges many of us feel are also very real.  

For a wide variety of reasons it’s hard for individuals at various points on the autism spectrum to see and appreciate the positions of others in the community.  Yet we must accomplish this if we wish to form a coherent group that can use the power of our numbers.  The way we are today outsiders see us advocating for so many disparate things that it’s hard to figure out what we – as a community – want.  If we speak in one voice we can ask for a range of things, and get them all.  Individual voices, speaking alone, will continue to accomplish little.


Rather than attack each other, our energies will be better spent building community, and pushing legislators, insurance companies, and researchers to actually help solve our problems.

John Elder Robison


John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.