Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Connecticut shootings: What's autism got to do with it?


Adam Lanza, the man who killed 20 children and six adults on Friday, may have had Asperger syndrome, along with a personality disorder, some news reports are saying. I'd been weeping as I Googled about what happened, but when I read that I felt a flare of concern: Why was autism playing into this tragedy?

School shootings may be getting more common in modern-day America, but so is pointing the finger at autism as the cause—and it could hurt kids and adults with special needs like Max.

From all descriptions, Lanza had social issues. He kept to himself, didn't have a photo in the high school yearbook or a Facebook page. In a New York Times article, one classmate described him as having a "very flat affect." Yes, people with Asperger's can be like that, but it doesn't mean they are killers in the making. Asperger's may just turn out to be one component of this man, a condition such as vision impairment or cerebral palsy that has nothing to do with violence. 

"Having Asperger's or the autism spectrum... does not carry any bearing on whether or not you will become—for lack of a better term—a 'good person' in this life," notes Michael John Carley, executive director of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership, in a statement the organization issued. "While the majority of statistics prove that we are infinitely more prone to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence, we are not immune from becoming people capable of making terrible, horrible choices."

Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders, not personality disorders. People with Asperger's may be prone to behavior like aggressive outbursts and temper tantrums—but there is no proof they are prone to violence, says psychiatrist Mohammad Ghaziuddin, M.D., in his book Mental Health Aspects of Autism and Asperger Syndrome

"Since people with a variety of psychiatric disorders, ranging from schizophrenia to conduct disorder, can behave violently it is unclear to what extent people with autism spectrum disorders should be singled out as being particularly vulnerable to offending behavior," writes Dr. Ghaziuddin, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry who specializes in autism spectrum disorders and teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 

He goes on to note that even when people with autism do commit violence, the underlying reason may be a psychiatric disorder, such as major depression or psychosis. In one Swedish study that compared people who committed violent or sexual offenses who had Asperger syndrome with criminals who did not, the authors concluded that violence perpetrated by someone with Asperger's is related to "similar co-occurring psychcopathology"—again, there has to be some other trigger. Drugs or substance abuse may also come into play.

The same autism finger-pointing happened with James Holmes, the man who went on a shooting rampage at a movie theater Aurora, Colorado. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, speculating on the perpetrator, sparked widespread outrage and a change.org petition when he remarked, "Most of it has to do with mental health. You have these people that are somewhere, I believe, probably on the autism scale. I don't know if that's the case here, but if happens more often than not." Scarborough, who has a son with Asperger's, later apologized, saying he could have stated his remarks more "eloquently."

The grieving families in Connecticut want answers. So does the world at large; incidents like this shatter our security and make us fear for our children. Discussions about gun control are one thing; implicating Asperger's has far-reaching consequences for children and adults with autism and other special needs.

"I already have had family members look at me oddly since James Holmes. I am getting nervous," wrote one commenter on the autism online community Wrong Planet, in a thread labeled "NOT GOOD, Connecticut shooter was diagnosed with Aspergers." Said another, "I hope that we are not stereotyped and singled out for this crap. I have been bullied and beat up enough in my 22 years."

Max has cerebral palsy, but as his mom I worry that linking Asperger syndrome to a massacre like this only makes people more wary and fearful of those with special needs. Even if it turns out to be untrue, the damage has already been done. Kids like Max have enough social challenges to contend with. Demonizing the special needs of a murderer can create other victims: children and adults with special needs. Let our hearts grieve for the families who lost loved ones, but let's keep our heads on straight about the whys.

Photo: The Newton Bee/Shannon Hicks

37 comments:

  1. VERY well said Ellen! I had many of your same fears about further stigmatism of those with disabilities when I saw Asperger's and Autism mentioned in reports yesterday. People want so-called "easy" answers when there are none.

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  2. Thank you for writing this Ellen! As the mother of a son on the autism spectrum I cringed when these mentions of the shooter being on the spectrum began to emerge yesterday! Thank you for reminding people that autism has nothing to do with this horrible situation!

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  3. Great post, Ellen. I've been watching mainly CNN because they have specifically decided to NOT give the killer very much attention and I've been pleased to hear a few of the anchors push on the autism link in a way that will hopefully debunk this neurodevelopment disorder as playing any role in the devastating massacre that took place yesterday. Thank you for helping get that message out even further, it's really important - as you so eloquently state - that we, as a society, doesn't further alienate our disabled citizens.

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  4. I have no idea what, if any, disorder or mental illness this Connecticut shooter may have had. Since he killed himself, we may never know for sure.

    But I can tell you that after the other tragedies in Tucson and Aurora, I have been overcome with deep despair. Jared Loughner has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and it is a distinct possibility that James Holmes also has schizophrenia. As the parent of a young man who is schizophrenic, I KNOW that a person who is actively psychotic is not in touch with reality and may do things that they would never do under normal circumstances. This does not seem like a difficult concept to me...it is codified in our legal system. But go to any news site where the crimes and/or trial are being discussed, and it is like being in the middle of a lynch mob. People want to just skip the trial and execute the killer (darn that pesky Constitution!), they fantasize about all sorts of torture that should be inflicted, and they get very angry if you dare suggest that having a severe psychosis should be taken into account. I even had one person who said, "Well, it's like putting down a rabid dog."

    I also know how my son suffers when he is psychotic...it is a living hell. So, in spite of the horrific acts these young men have committed, I can't help but feel compassion for them. And I can tell you, THAT is a very unpopular thing to say.

    So I wind up feeling full of despair, because of the ignorance, the prejudice, the lynch mob mentality and calls for violence. And I also get very angry that people and the legislators they elect slash mental health programs and then are full of consternation and condemnation for the mentally ill when a tragedy occurs.

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  5. Gun control laws is the answer to curtail future shooting sprees. As BJP in India GOP in US goes on obstructing the US Govt and President from enacting laws. Inspite of such massacres

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    1. But guns are not allowed in schools...that is the law. Don't you see all you would do is take the guns from law abiding citizens and only the outlaws will have them. This is a mental health issue. We must address how easily we sweep those with mental health under a rug. We fill them with shame and they will not seek help. Or worse we simply say....Pop a pill and all will be right.

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    2. It is a gun issue. He didn't get the guns from criminals, he got them from his home.

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    3. His mother should not have had guns in the house knowing her child had a mental condition. You can't buy guns in TX if you have been diagnosed with a mental condition. Very sad.

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  6. Thank you for writing this! I work with children with Autism and this was my initial fear as I heard the media make predictions to the mental health/state of Adam L. I am nervous about what can happen because the media loves to make a "monster" and they will use anything in their power to do it, including using diagnoses that they have no idea about.

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  7. Ellen, I know you are an excellent mother and you have Max's best interest in mind. I respect your opinion on the issue and I hope you'll hear mine out,even if it's different.

    60 years ago, it was "fact" that autism was caused by a "disconnected" mother. 3 years ago, I spoke with an autism "expert" at a pretigious university who told me (as if it was a fact) that autism can never be detected before 3 years old. Experts are wrong. A LOT!

    BUT if we never question ideas, if we never discuss them, if we hide the diagnosis/ diagnosises of a very disturbed individual, we fail to learn. And failing to learn hurts everyone. We do not know everything there is to know about autism or asperger's right now. If we completly ingnore asperger's in this very disturbed boy's medical history, we may miss the opportunity for greater understanding.

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    1. Anyone who has been blessed to know children with autism know that the two topics should NEVER have been mentioned in the same sentence! We have come so far but comments like we have heard on the news about this make me realize just how far we have yet to come. Thank you for all you do!

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    2. Who's "hiding" the diagnosis? I think making the unsubstantiated leap that autism/asperger's caused this shooting or fed into it is as likely as this kid's EYE color, race or shoe size had a role in it. We know nothing about this kid's home life--we don't know what pressures he was under, what his relationship with his parents was like behind closed doors, or what other diagnoses (schizophrenia or some other MI) he dealt with. We do know his mother was an avid marksman and took her children target shooting regularly, and kept guns in the house--guns that apparently this kid was able to get ahold of without any difficulty atall. Perhaps a good gun safe and a few TRIGGER LOCKS would have prevented this tragedy? We just do NOT KNOW. It's just irresponsible to single out one thing and play the "AH HA" game. FWIW, it was never a "fact" that autism was caused by disconnected mothers. It was a lousy theory that was touted by idiot shrinks who were penis-focused Freudian fools. I think when we enable media-driven diagnoses, we're fools who don't learn anything, we just perpetuate nasty stereotypes about people who are "different" from the sitcom norm.

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  8. Yesterday, there were reports using the language 'developmental disability', then that changed to 'autism'. I think the act was so heinous that people try to attach as many aberrations to the killer as they can, so people can begin to distance themselves from the crime. It's like when people call serial killers 'monsters' - the inclination to blithely use language that reflect the diagnoses of our beautiful children is worrying, to say the least. And I am appalled at Scarborough's remarks - they are a real betrayal of his own family.

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  9. Frankly, at this point we just don't know. We don't know what mental issues (if any) the killer had, whether they contributed to his attack, or what his motivations might have been. I don't think the media should jump on a cause too early no matter what it is. Remember the "Twinkie defense" when Harvey Milk was murdered?

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  10. I don't watch TV, only have read articles about the killer. To answer your rhetorical question, autism is playing into the tragedy... because he had autism. (Presumably. Though so many other 'facts' about this incident were reported incorrectly.) None of the articles I have read have inferred that there is a link between Asperger's and his violent act. They've not implicated causation; they are stating the fact that he had it.

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    1. It was stated in the news that he was never diagnosed as having an autistic spectrum. My grandson who is 25 has been diagnosed with aspergers and dds.He is appalled by what happened. Maybe you should watch some tv like maybe educational channels they sometimes have specials on Autism and the spectrum's involved. Unless you live with or share in helping someone who is autistic you have no idea what it is like. The media jumping on this angers me.

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  11. BW aka Barbara from BostonDecember 15, 2012 at 6:55 PM

    I wonder if the publication of (the possibility of) the perpetrator having aspergers disease may be linked to the proposed removal of aspergers from the soon to be released update of DSM IV( a collection of names of disorders recognized as mental illnesses)? Violent tendencies are NOT a given in this illness.
    I would hope that your entry makes its way onto facebook or even you tube, Ellen. Your post is a carefully worded response to the tragedy.No blanket condemnation of aspergers sufferers is warranted or factual.
    Our hearts are open to and go out to loved ones of those involved here. This includes EVERYONE associated to those injured or killed including the young man who acted so tragically.

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  12. Very well said. When I heard the word "autism" this morning, I was heartbroken. If the shooter is on the spectrum, it most certainly is not why he killed 20 innocent children. It makes me sad that this was even a discussion this morning.
    Thank you for helping to increase awareness. As a mom who has a three year old on the spectrum, we're going to face enough without people worrying that he'll grow up to be violent.

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  13. Great post! I shared it on fb. I really hope people don't condemn those who have autism due to this tragedy. I feel that kids like my son are already judged and singled out enough without having people suspect them of violent tendencies just because of their diagnosis.

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  14. Well said Ellen! People should not condemn all people with Autism because of one horrible thing someone with Asperger's syndrome did.

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  15. Word. I've been nervous about this, too

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  16. Thank you Ellen! I was also concerned when I noticed Autism mentioned once again with a violent act.

    I fear Autism is becoming a scapegoat and people are going to associate it with violence. People are scared of what they don't know or understand. The media needs to realize the harm that can be done when they assume instead of wait for the facts.

    ~Jamie

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  17. Thank you for posting this Ellen. My heart broke when I heard the terrible news but I became fearful when the media began posting words like autism and Aspergers syndrome. Autism and violence do not go together. Kids with Autism throw tantrums because they cannot communicate. To learn something they have to be taught over and over with patience. They have to be told what to do. They do not plan things ahead of time. They are no more prone to violence than an NT person. But now I know a fear I didn't know before, that somebody could hate my child simply for having special needs. But my heart still goes out to the victims of this terrible tragedy.

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    1. We are learning that the mother was a "survivalist--disaster prepper" who stockpiled food and supplies and thought there was going to be a huge economic collapse resulting in unrest. Who knows what she told that kid... We are also learning that the kid played a LOT of violent video games.

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    2. Kids with autism CAN communicate. Never make the mistake of thinking children with autism cannot communicate- they can. They might not do it properly yet they try.

      And I dont understand why the media would want to make things worse for the autism community. To me, thats rather sad, really sad. Shame on the media they should know better.

      The media NEED to stop assuming and wait for the facts. If that is too difficult- why be a reporter. What ever happened to journalistic integrity? I wish the media of today still had it.

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  18. Every time something horrible happens, at some point it's stated that the person is on the Spectrum. I've already had someone joke and ask "When are you going to go on your killing spree" - and it broke my heart. Autistic people aren't killers or people who are a danger to society but that is what we are being made out to be and it isn't fair.
    It's time for American to see some common sense and bring in gun laws. Australia and the UK did it after one gun massacre - how many children have to die before America does the same?

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  19. I really don't understand why some Americans are so obsessed with that second amendment in your constitution. Apparently the "right" to own a gun is more important than protecting people by bringing in gun laws that regulate and restrict them.

    If Adam Lanza didn't have access to those guns, his mother and those children and teachers would not be dead. The only way to restrict his access to them would be to restrict his mother's "right" to own them in the first place. Yet I see large numbers of Americans advocating for more people to have more guns?!?! Such craziness...

    Tragedies like this make me so glad I don't live in America. Where I live, not even the POLICE are armed because guns are so restricted that they don't need to be. Sadly it is much easier to blame autism than it is to confront the fact that the reason America has such a problem with shootings is because of the lack of gun laws. Other countries have just as many mentally disturbed people, yet they don't have this problem. Why do you think that is??

    I hope and pray for your country that gun laws be introduced, but sadly I don't think they will be. So instead I will pray no one loses their life in the next shooting that occurs... and with the way things are, another shooting is inevitable.

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  20. Well said! My son is an introvert, has trouble socially, and generally "different" from kids his age. He was diagnosed with Asperger's a couple of years ago. Along with SPD and OCD. When I started seeing these reports I was irritated. We want answers but lets be smart about accepting them. My heart breaks for these parents and families.

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  21. YES. Thanks for writing this. I found myself yelling at the TV all weekend, "Stop saying he has Aspergers!"

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  22. On the other hand, you have a kid (now an adult) with Aspergers who has a long history of, say, harassing his ex-girlfriend, who violates an order of protection she took out against him, gets sent to jail, resumes harassing her the instant he's released from prison, thus violating his parole and getting sent back to prison -- all the while continuing to threaten/harrass the ex-GF and send written threats to the prosecuted (charming little dead man with "rip" written next to it). Whose father loves his kid with Aspergers and rails against the "injustice" of his law breaking kid (with a special need, no doubt) getting sent to prison for his actions. The dad argues his son "makes violent threats, but isn't violent". Um, no.

    http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20110925/news/709259910/

    Autism wouldn't necessarily *cause* a person to become violent and harm others, but having SN incredibly low tolerance for frustration and a giant chip on your shoulder likely doesn't help. I follow several blogs by moms of kids with autism who write about calling the police, having their kid involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.

    The odds of a kid with autism planning a violent act are very, very, low -- as are the odds of ANYBODY planning an a violent attack as awful as the one in ct. Maybe Adam did not have autism. Maybe he had a different mental illness. Maybe he didn't. No one knows yet - and there's been so much incorrect info released of late. No one knows why the awful act in ct was committed - so there's no way to know if it was or wasn't related to an Aspergers diagnosis.

    Maybe everyone

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  23. As a mom of an autistic boy who was upset about the links and correlations made between Aspergers and pre-planned violence, thank you so much for putting into words what I have yet to be able to process. The most I could do was to link to the transcript of Anderson Cooper 360 where he and Dr. Sanjay Gupta dispelled the correlation. http://coloradomoms.com/forums/#/discussion/3397/a-discussion-about-autism-and-the-newtown-tragedy-

    Autism is NOT a mental illness, it is a neurological disorder. Those with mental illness are sure to be upset as well, for this putting more of a stigma on such an already taboo subject. I truly hope that after everyone's emotions have calmed that we, as a society, can have a truthful discussion on mental illness.

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  24. Personally I don't think the media is blaming Adam's Aspergers as the reason why he committed this horrific crime. I think everyone agrees that the fact that most people who commit these types of crimes have some type of mental disorder is a reason to have a broader conversation about how we recognize, respond to and treat people with mental illness in this country. Adam may not have had the resources available to him at school or in his community in order to gain skills and tools to deal with strong emotions. As someone who works with Autistic children I have seen first hand how children left untreated can become unstable and unable to sustain emotionally healthy relationships with peers and others around them. I am glad that we are having this conversation about mental illness and the role it has played in this tragedy. It is time we address how much we have ignored children and adults with mental illness and how little we actually know about these types of disorders and the best way to treat them.

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  25. I agree that whatever this man’s disabling condition was, it should only be considered “one component” of him. I can understand how this man’s diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum might cast an unfavorable view towards autism, however I feel that would be irresponsible to completely disregard this one component for fear of misconception or stereotypes. We cannot deny the link between disabilities and mental health needs. It is one of correlation, not causation. One that in my opinion is much the fault of our broken education and health care systems.

    To say this man’s special need may just be like a “condition such as vision impairment or cerebral palsy that has nothing to do with violence” is like drawing a line in the sand. My question to you is, what special need—be it physical, neurological, or mental health related—has to do with violence? Would everyone be more comfortable if this person had some other, “more fitting,” label?

    Blanket characterizations as the one you mentioned, that people on the autism spectrum are “killers in the making,” are completely uninformed and illogical. If the media portrays this falsehood we surely need to extinguish it. However, we cannot deny the link between various special needs and mental health needs. This link is one of correlation, not causation. And we cannot deny that many children, adolescents, and adults with autism or Asperger’s do have significant social, emotional, and communicative challenges—that can and do often lead to mental illness.

    I absolutely understand and agree that these challenges experienced by those with Asperger’s do not usually equate to violence— however, to suggest that the possibility does not exist, and that we should not discuss all of the components of this person, is flat out irresponsible and counterproductive. Whatever the label of this person is, what’s clear here is he had grave needs that were unmet. Reports have suggested he indeed faced many challenges (some similar to those faced by people with Asperger’s, some not). Instead of topically looking at this person, I believe we need to look deeper and try to uncover what needs he had that were not met.

    I was touched by President Obama’s sentiment expressed last night—“we are not doing enough.” As someone who has worked in the mental health field, and currently works as a special educator, I will be the first to say that these systems are broken and leave many social, emotional, and communicative needs of children and adolescents unmet. As a strong advocate for children with special needs and their families, I certainly agree that we shouldn't jump to conclusions or make uninformed characterizations about people with autism or any special need. That said, we must also be careful not to be biased or choosy when it comes to figuring out the span of needs this person had. Instead, we need to take an honest look at this person, the needs he had, and where/how things went wrong. This is one part of where we as a society must begin in preventing this from ever happening again.

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  26. As an autistic person, I blame the human nature. Since hunting was invented, we had an innate desire to kill.

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  27. Great blog! Aspergers or high functioning autism is considered to be a disability, not a mental illness (such as bipolar disorder) and it is not generally associated with violent behavior. If it was, Silicon Valley would be a war zone. I don't recall Bill Gates or Thomas Edison ever shooting anyone. The focus on autism in the press is all about making headlines and is just a distraction from the real issue of gun collections being kept the home and around kids.

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  28. Eric Butter, assistant professor of pediatrics and psychology at Ohio State University:

    Although not the type of planned, intentional violence in the Connecticut shootings, "Research suggests that aggression among people with autism spectrum conditions can occur 20 percent to 30 percent more often than compared to the general population." "It is a very human experience that when you cannot explain how you are feeling, that you will then act out in frustration, anger, and aggression." "Aggression in people with Asperger's and autism tends to be more reactive, such as "impulsive outbursts, being quick to anger, shoving or pushing, shouting in anger, and being slow to cool off when angry."

    So, you see, Autism is linked to violent behavior. Does that mean Autistics are planned, methodical killers? No, of course not. But are they more susceptible to violent behavior than the neurotypical population? Yes, they are. Clearly, this is true. During a violent rage, are they likely to harm an animal or a younger child? Yes.

    Please don't let your bias cloud the facts. It serves no one, especially not the ASD community.

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Thanks for sharing!