If I were an average American today, I might be worrying about the stock market reaching frightening lows. I might be worrying about the wildfires burning all across Northern California where I live. I might be worrying about the fact that I'll soon be without health insurance once more. I might be worrying that my business isn't generating as much revenue as I'd like due to the general state of the economy. I might even be worrying about the perpetual human tragedy that seems to be Africa. But the fact of the matter is that I'm not an average American, because I have a brother with autism, and when you have a brother with autism, your biggest worry, a fear that eclipses all others, that pervades every waking moment, and that never ceases, is probably something like mine: what will happen if the Cleveland Indians lose their next baseball game?
It's important to understand that my brother loves the Cleveland Indians. Granted, a lot of people, most of them in Cleveland, love the Cleveland Indians, but I think it unlikely that most love them as much as my brother. When the Indians win, there is about a fifty percent chance that my brother will go to sleep at night happy. When the Indians lose, the odds are not nearly so good. Then, it's more likely that he'll go to sleep unhappy, which can mean any of the following: screaming outside from our driveway for hours, calling the parents of students he went to middle school with (who he hasn't seen in years) at inappropriate times, waking my parents up at 1:30 A.M. or later, eating six servings worth of sodium-laced frozen food that were intended for some future meal, banging outside with a snow shovel, going on a bike ride in the dead of night, or all of the above. On particularly bad nights, the police will visit our house--sometimes twice. Every now and then, my brother will be arrested at gunpoint.
You might think that based on the above description, my brother, who lives with my parents in the house where I grew up, resides in some sort of ethnic ghetto with under-funded and ill-informed law enforcement officials who have no concept of how to deal with people with mental illness. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, my family lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburban dreamland with nominally good public schools and high taxes that keep city services running smoothly, even while the rest of the Cleveland area seems to be crumbling. Nonetheless, for the reasons above, I've come to think of Shaker Heights as a kind of Hell on Earth.
Anyone with an autistic individual in their own family can relate similar stories. What never ceases to amaze me is how little we care, even at our own expense. For example, there is a reason that our nation's jails are bursting at the seams. (Jails are funded by our taxes.) So many mentally ill people are incarcerated every year, there's hardly any room for those relatively few sane criminals who have actually committed intentional, premeditated crimes. And why shouldn't the mentally ill be thrown in jail? After all, unless you have the millions necessary to build your own private institution, there's nowhere else to put them.
In Hitler's Germany, the Nazis simply executed those they deemed to suffer from mental illness. Today we shirk in horror at the notion of such inhumane cruelty, but our own system is hardly anything to be proud of, and could arguably be deemed even worse, for extending and enhancing the suffering of those who need it least. For in our country, there is no system to speak of. We leave the mentally ill to the care of their parents (if they are even alive) or extended relatives in their own homes, as if these unfortunate individuals and undistinguished residences were somehow once gifted with the ability to provide an excellent standard of care to people with complex and serious diseases. Even the best of the regional mental health boards, run by states, counties and municipalities, are usually staffed by indifferent individuals with no actual expertise in psychology or medicine. (The worst are staffed by those who abuse the people they are supposed to be helping.) There are no federal programs to handle autistic children or adults, save for one: the sprawling "correctional" system.
And so a familiar scene plays itself out every day across America. Parents shoot their children because in more ways than one--through intense stress, sleeplessness, and mental anguish--the children are effectively killing their parents. It's admittedly a distasteful thought, and one that is rarely uttered or written about. Yet it is the sad truth, applying just as frequently to those with money, power, prestige, and it does to those without.
One Washington Post article written only two years ago began this way: "A former Bush administration official, after arguing violently with his wife Thursday night, shot and killed his 12-year-old son inside their McLean home, then turned a shotgun on himself and committed suicide, Fairfax County police said." The son was autistic.
Another New York Times article from November 23, 2006 is equally frank: "A severely autistic boy was found slashed to death in a bathtub in his Bronx apartment yesterday morning after his father called the authorities to report that the boy was dead, the police said. 'I've terminated the life of my autistic child,' the police said the father told officers who responded to the call." There are plenty more.
You might think that Congress would do something about a problem so severe and so obviously federal in nature, but alas, nothing happens. We, the greatest society in the world, the champions of human rights, the ones who believe that "all men are created equal," continue to do nothing. We do worse than nothing. Rather than take care of our sick and needy, we fund corrupt defense contractors to wage meaningless wars abroad.
So I worry. Sometimes about the stock market, but also about my family. Because no one really cares what happens to these people. Not until they themselves find themselves with the short straw in the lottery that is life, and by then, even for those in the highest ranks of government, it's too late.
Aaron Greenspan is the author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era, and the founder of Think Computer Foundation, which attempts to help those with autism.