At the end of June, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome was badly beaten by a gang of other teens in Illinois. Their reason? He was “weird.” In an inspiring show of leniency, the victim of the assault, a recent high school graduate named Gavin Joseph, chose not to press charges, but instead requested that his attackers become educated about the nature of Asperger’s and do community service to help others with disabilities.
Asperger’s syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. People diagnosed with Asperger’s generally do not experience the severe speech or cognitive delays that characterize other types of autism disorders, but they do suffer from difficulties with social communication and can have a hard time interacting with and interpreting others. Gavin Joseph’s mother, Cortnie Stone, writes in a Facebook post that her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of three. She explains how her son’s disorder affects his social interactions:
You can't "see" Asperger's since it's not a visible disability, it's a social/emotional one that makes relationships difficult to attain. It doesn't prohibit his movement, or ability to walk, but it makes everyday interactions with people very difficult. He can appear rude, impatient, "weird", detached, or uninterested, but this is not intentional. He can also be kind, generous, and forgiving, but even this can appear awkward at times because some of it is learned and not always natural.
Stone points out that being a teenager — surrounded by other teens — has been especially difficult for Gavin, as the social cues he worked so hard to learn in his younger years have shifted as the people around him have gotten older.
She explains that on a Thursday at the end of June, a bunch of teens decided that Gavin was “weird” and “creepy” because of his social awkwardness and his tendency to hang out by himself. Because people are utterly horrible sometimes, these kids decided that he needed to be punished. Stone writes,
On Friday night, another kid that overheard that conversation decided to take matters into his own hands and become judge and jury, and this is the result of that. He didn't ask questions, didn't get to know Gavin, never met him, and didn't give him a chance to leave. He was called to meet someone, surrounded by people he didn't know, choked, punched, and left laying on the pavement so he would "learn his lesson".
According to Stone, Gavin suffered “a mild concussion, a bruised esophagus, the tip of his nose fractured, and hematoma in his eye” from the attack, but, thankfully, he will make a full recovery. What is most remarkable about this case is not that the assault took place — violence inspired by ignorance is, after all, depressingly common — but that Gavin chose not to press charges against his assailants. Instead, he asked that they be required to perform community service in aid of people with disabilities, each write an essay about Asperger’s syndrome, and that “they watch a 20 min video statement he taped while their families were present so they could see the damage they did and hear the event from his perspective.”
Although this punishment is a surprisingly generous response to a violent, hate-fueled attack, it also seems to be the one most likely to prevent similar incidents in the future, because it attempts to get at the root of the problem: ignorance and fear. Gavin’s mother writes, “I am so proud of him, and I hope a lesson will come of this to all that hear about it.”
Image: Magdalena Roeseler/Flickr