On Asperger's Syndrome and the death of Courtney Topic

This will be a much shorter post than usual, but there are just a few things I have to say regarding the tragic death of Courtney Topic, shot by police in a western Sydney carpark yesterday. The exact circumstances of her death are for the coroner to determine, but the death of any young person is a tragedy, and my deepest sympathy goes to her family and friends.

In the aftermath of her death, her family have revealed that Ms Topic lived with Asperger's syndrome, and this has set of a flurry of inaccurate comments on social media. Don't read the comments, they say, and I shouldn't have but did, and what's there is very distressing. People with Asperger's (or on the autism spectrum) are "mad", "mentally ill", "mentally challenged", "sick", "violent". This young woman should have been more closely watched by her parents, should have been looked after, we should re-open the institutions as people with autism cannot function in normal society.

Now, I've no idea how Ms Topic's autism manifested itself - every case is different, hence the common phrase "if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism". But public awareness of autism seems to stem mostly from crimes committed by people diagnosed in the media with autism - Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, or the inaccurate claim which persists to this day that Martin Bryant has Asperger's (he doesn't; his IQ would preclude a diagnosis). Here's what I'd dearly like to get out there:
  • Autism is not a mental illness. Whilst symptoms can be treated, and skills taught to ease interaction with the world, it cannot be cured or medicated.
  • Asperger's syndrome (AS) affects people's day to day functioning, however, it does not cause autistic people to suddenly engage in violent, erratic and uncharacteristic behaviour. Many people with AS have meltdowns throughout the course of the day, which may be small frustrations or larger tantrums. These act as a sort of pressure release valve, and are usually better out than in. A person with autism would be extremely unlikely to suddenly "snap" and grab a knife or gun to enact their frustrations on society - the angst would have been released in a meltdown long before then.
  • Nor does AS cause people to hallucinate or hear voices telling them what to do.
  • AS does not correlate with, cause or result in violence. 
  • Most people with AS are able to function in society, often without co-workers and friends realising they're autistic. Many have successful careers, particularly in the fields that value the attributes of logic and reason displayed by many Aspies, such as science, engineering and finance.
  • People with AS are not mentally challenged and in fact often have IQs above the average. 
  • People with AS do often struggle to fit in socially, however, and that sure as hell isn't helped by stereotypes and misconceptions of them as angry, violent, mentally challenged loners.
Autism - especially in adults, especially in adult women - is still so misunderstood, If you'd like to read more, there are some excellent resources from Autism UK and the Victorian Health. We can't educate everyone, but I hope to start somewhere.  

Comments

  1. Thanks for your contribution to this complex and widely misunderstood topic

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  2. Sometimes those with Asperger's share a deep passion for something and they may want to talk about this passion constantly, despite the listener growing visibly annoyed. This is because famous Asperger's don't understand that sighing or looking at a watch means the listener is uninterested.

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