What If 'They' Believe I Am Dangerous?

The following deals with an issue as delicately as possible: Has the recent Tucson shooting increased the likelihood that students with autism spectrum diagnoses might be mistaken for safety risks?

At first, I was taken aback by the issue. Then, I realized it isn't new. Students with ASDs already have to battle misunderstandings and cultural biases.

Several college and university students with ASDs write to me on a regular basis. I do my best to answer their questions, but I don't always have good answers. Sometimes, I can help or at least offer a little guidance towards where the right answer might be. Then there are the answers that leave me depressed.

I'm going to paraphrase a question from a student, as best I can while still conveying his concerns. I have promised to do my best not to reveal much about the student. However, he's actually one of many with these experiences.
I am a master's student. My adviser recently told me that other students are uncomfortable around me. He said another instructor was also bothered by my apparently lack of attention in class. I draw patterns while listening to relax. I really am listening, though. Anyway, my adviser says the department is "concerned" about me. They don't feel safe or something.
You get the idea. The student is struggling to do well academically, but it is the social issues causing problems. He sends the wrong signals to instructors and classmates somehow. The student states his real concern carefully, but I understand it. Again, I'm paraphrasing.
What if the department or some student thinks I'm a threat? What will happen? Everyone is on edge and I'm afraid they'll assume I'm dangerous because I am different.
A simple Google search reveals why a student would be concerned:
Consider the statistics for elementary schools. Quoting from the Associated Press:
More than 20 percent of students expelled from Texas schools have disabilities even though special education accounts for just 10 percent of the state's students, according to a report from Texas Appleseed released Wednesday. And the likelihood of being expelled multiplies two to three times for African American and Hispanic students with disabilities.
How could I respond to this? My personal experiences certainly aren't going to give the student hope. I've been told instructors found me intense, intimidating, strange, and much worse. Though I survived through a doctoral program, it left me with bad memories and even nightmares. All because I was "different" and not socially charming or outgoing.

I am intense and opinionated. I'm also a dedicated instructor and advocate for my students. But, I am not a threat to anyone -- beyond threatening their expectations and comfortable little worlds.

The best I can offer are the following suggestions:
  • Disclosure to Disability Services, which at your college or university should then work to inform and educate professors. However, DS will not disclose your diagnosis, which can complicate matters as much as it helps.
  • Disclosure to a trusted professor within your primary department. A professor might be able to plan ways to deal with other faculty members and your peers.
  • Working with any autism advocacy groups to educate faculty and students.
Honestly, in this environment overreactions will occur. I'm hoping that such reactions won't be widespread or permanently harmful. I do not want any student to go through experiences like mine. We must not allow people to assume the worst of students with any social differences. Being different is not a crime. We must not allow panicked, misinformed people to confuse social awkwardness for danger signs.

I do want to stress that my bad experiences were limited, but they were bad. Maybe knowing about my years here can help someone. I'm not sure it helps, though.

Past posts on my personal experiences:


  1. Hah! I remember emailing Jeff Knox, Neil Knox's son, about my project of making some t-shirts with ""Autistic Gun Nut" printed on them. He dissuaded me, saying that it wouldn't be prudent, or words to that effect.

    I do think that auties are less likely to do random crazy murders than are NTs.


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