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Connecticut Shooting Raises Questions About Autism

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News that the gunman responsible for the Connecticut school shooting last week was reportedly diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome is coming with a dose of caution from autism advocates.

A law enforcement official told The Associated Press over the weekend that Adam Lanza, 20, had Asperger’s. Lanza killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Friday, most of them children in the first grade.

But autism advocates say the diagnosis does not explain the mass shooting and point out that there is no link between the type of planned violence that Lanza displayed and the developmental disorder.

“There is absolutely no evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence,” reads a statement from The Autism Society. “To imply or suggest that some linkage exists is wrong and is harmful to more than 1.5 million law abiding, non-violent and wonderful individuals who live with autism each day.”

Those who knew Lanza described him to The New York Times as shy and socially awkward. While those traits are characteristic of autism, self-advocates caution that having the condition does not suggest whether a person will do good or bad things in life.

“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. No one is,” said Michael John Carley, executive director of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership.

Nonetheless, experts at the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law said the tragedy calls attention to the lack of mental health services currently available.

“The real problem is that community based services — including mobile crisis services, assertive community treatment, peer supports and supportive housing — are in short supply, delaying hospital discharges and resulting in mental health crises that could otherwise be prevented,” the organization said in a statement. “A stronger commitment to vital community mental health services is long overdue and must be paired with improved gun laws in order to prevent future tragedies.”

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Comments (20 Responses)

  1. VMGillen says:

    This is no surprise – but I wish rather than responding about how some w/ASD are wonderful, law abiding, etc. it would have been far more effective to point out the fallacy in cause-and-effect reasoning here… I used to illustrate this to my students by showing that turn-of-the century wearers of top-hats were less likely to die of cholera… not because they owned a top hat, but because if they could afford to buy one they could also afford to get out of the city during outbreaks, had access to better water, etc. For that matter, why not simply point out that as a young male he fits right into the profile of mass murderers?

  2. annie says:

    It is my hope that his diagnosis will not become the focus of this crisis. Most mass murderers are NOT autistic, and I would hate to see the acts of one individual proliferate a terrible stigma against everyone who is on the spectrum.

  3. Tacitus says:

    Every time I hear about one of these stories I have to get off the internet, because I know the awful things people are going to start saying. I hate the rush these people have to blame mental illness and disability. This hurts people. The people at this law center should be ashamed of themselves. Mental Health services are so bad because people hate and fear crazy people and lump us all together into one lump category of “dangerous weird people.” This stuff hurts innocent people.

    We used to have systems in place to prevent these kinds of things from happening, but they’ve been sytematically dismantled, and the usual suspects are all proclaiming that they haven’t been broken down enough. But the conversation is supposed to be about how dangerous crazy people are. This is rotten behavior.

  4. Sonja says:

    Autism is NOT a mental “illness” it’s a neurological disorder of the brain. Depending on the type of therapies provided to a child and the parent/guardian’s commitment to ensuring additional therapeutic support will help determine how a child will develop into an adult.

    This boy’s mom had means. I’d read about how “sophisticated and well-dressed” she was in one article and how they lived in a very nice home in another. She loved guns and taught her children to use them. Whether she also provided psychiatric, psychological therapy, social skills and other such treatments that would benefit a child on the spectrum has still not been discussed.

    This boy had issues above and beyond his diagnosis of Asperger’s and we haven’t heard whether he was provided the needed therapies related to his condition that most families try to provide their children on the spectrum.

    The discussion is not just about gun control or mental health – it’s also about universal health care and providing what is needed so these children will be able to function in society with supports if needed. Did this young man have any supports or treatment along the way? We still don’t know. Until we do – we cannot say that his “condition” was the cause. Not all children with autism grow up to be killers. Most are bullied, not the other way around.

    We have the means in this country to help at a much deeper level than we do.

  5. HR says:

    Dear Ms. Gament:

    I can only hope you wrote the article but did not select the headline. If you did choose the headline, please don’t ever write another word about autism. The ONLY connection between this horrendous killing and autism/ASD/Aspergers is the type created by headlines like this one. Shame on you.

  6. Roberta Gallant says:

    The entire United States of America should now receive strict gun control.
    Currently, the United States faces too much gun violence. People with
    mental illnesses and autism illegally purchase handguns. When those people
    snap, they use handguns and military assault rifles against innocent citizens.
    The state and federal government ought to create laws cracking down on gun
    violence. I do not favor gun violence whatsoever because it sucks!

  7. Jon K. Evans says:

    You bet I am concerned. If I was paid just one dollar for each and every time I was perceived as being gay because of my speaking voice-including a voice therapist, I could easily pay for a Mini-Cooper, INSURANCE AND ALL with cash. Now this bombshell comes along. People that are the least different from the mainstream, does not have a chance today.

  8. George says:

    If Adam had ASD, what experience did the mother have in developmental disability to even fathom home schooling; and the exposure to weapons. The pervasiveness of thoughts and in social expressions are part of the hallmarks of ASD. Adam needed specialized services from professionals with experience in developmental disabilities. He never received any. Home school is obviously no substitute.

  9. Glen S says:

    So much vitriol, hyperbole, and outright fallacy. Where to begin? Of course, gun violence should be abhorred. But for a poster to make the statements he/she made is hyperbolic and fallacious. Let’s take some of the previous suggestions one by one.

    First, strict gun control is not the answer. For one, this will only keep handguns and assault weapons out of the hands of law abiding citizens. Criminals are already going to break the law. Why would we think that a law severely limiting or denying ownership of weapons will prevent those already determined to break other laws from breaking this one too.

    That said, there are reasonable limits to the ownership of weapons. We license the ownership and use of automobiles. Why not require appropriate waiting periods, background checks, age limits, and even training on the proper use of the class of weapon you wish to purchase? And just as we don’t allow individuals with certain impairments to drive, some individuals should not own weapons.

    Second, so it is OK for this country to engage in some kinds of “profiling” but not others? This is at least the second time a particular poster has engaged in vitriol by declaring that society believes individuals with autism are crazy. The statement has absolutely no basis in fact. The truth is that society has an quite a bit of good will toward all individuals with disabilities.

    That said, it is appropriate and worth examining: a) Did Adam Lanza’s chronic issues contribute to the shooting spree; b)How did he acquire the weaponry? Legally, illegally; c)Do we need to limit ownership by more than chronological age?

    Third, of course most individuals with autism/Asperger’s are kind, law abiding individuals. No one is saying that just because Mr. Lanza had chronic issues he went on a shooting spree. No one is saying that all individuals with autism/Asperger’s are more likely to do this. But it is worth determining if it was a contributing factor in this case, and determining how best to eliminate it has a determining factor in the future.

    Finally, some mental illnesses do render the individual more violent than society can tolerate. For one poster to remotely suggest that no mental illness needs treatment or in “extreme” cases removal from society has no basis in fact. Accommodations are not often enough.

  10. Whitney says:

    There are two separate issues is one is Autism and other is gun control. The fact when a child grows up with autism too often there is not enough support in ways where the can be independent as much as possible. This means meaningful jobs, education and economic growth etc. For people with autism this is not the land of equal opportunity if a normal person face the same stress it is little wonder why we have mass shootings. Mean what options do they have to turn away from violence. You want profiles so easier to label people and prevent crimes in general this is societal fault. Part of the problem is guns or more specifically the access to guns. It is not Aspergers it not the Williams Syndrome it is the society lack opportunities and the stigmatizing of people who are different. If you want to curb gun violence people need to believe they can get ahead in life until this pattern change. I can see more crimes using guns. I think the approach of gun ownership needs to focus on the responsibility and not the right. You have the right to own a gun and not the right shoot to kill people. Guns are the most effective ways of killing people. Until the factors take into account what happens after violence and instead of glorifying it this will not change. All the profiling of people will not change the ills of society.

  11. patm says:

    I do work with people who are on the autism spectrum and, although it is not politically correct to say,there are more than a few who are violent. However their violence is more of a spontaneous type, done as a reaction to have limits set, or being in an umcomfortable situation. It is quite similar to a panic attack. Some we can medicate away but there is a huge bias in the field against the use of medications. Many feel it is the medications that have caused the disease, and they have not. The killer in Connecticut made quite a plan for carry out the killing, including destroying the computer hard drive prior to driving to the school. The shows a planning capability many of mine with autism just do not have. As the field is being criminalized- police must be called when there are abuse and neglect complaints and employees can be arrested for these- so too will the field of autism become criminalized and alas, maybe then they will get some better treatment. Many in prison have mental health issues which they have never received services for until they landed in prison. They can attend school in prison and learn skills that may help them make it in the real world. Hopefully some good will come out of this very tragic situation and God bless all those in that town.

  12. Laura Disney says:

    It is unfortunate that the media, who the general population turns to for information does not take the time to verify or validate facts before they spew them over national and world wide broadcasts! Shy and socially awkward does not always mean Asperger’s! Social Anxiety Disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder can be loosely described in the same generic way! I have worked with individuals with ASD for many years (although not Asperger) and although I have seen many “violent outbursts” as one doctor on the news stated, it is always reactive aggression or reacting to something immediately such as pain, over stimulation, sensory overload. I have never seen calculate, planned instrumental aggression that statistically has a more mental health not a neurological basis. It does a disservice to both the developmental and mental health communities to be speculating without facts just to sensationalize and fill time in for a 24 hour news day!

  13. Christopher Schmidt says:

    Reporting that the individual had an autism diagnosis should only be as relevant as reporting that he had a cold or that he had blue eyes. There is no causal relationship. Unforunaty those without sufficient knowledge will be looking for a clear cause, and they will likely grab on forbid fact as though it explains something as senseless as this. Nevermind the fact that autism never factored into the other mass shootings this year. A fact is not a reason.

  14. KA101 says:

    Colleague of mine did a pretty good writeup on the problem with linking autism & mass shootings.

    She had also been thoroughly abused by her parents & later bullied in school: no matter what the rationale for making someone the “Scary Person” (abuse victim, bully victim, and now, autistic) was, she fit it, and was therefore further ostracized and driven out.

    (google “Radical Neurodivergence Speaking” if you’re interested.)

    The basic problem with pinning shootings on the shooter’s membership in $GROUP is that it encourages cutting $GROUP members out of the social framework. IMO social connections are the best way to catch & redirect potential shooters.

  15. Cindy Brown says:

    It is human nature to find a quick cause for such violent behavior. We need to point the fingers in all directions…guns, mental health, parenting, movies, video games, music and so on. How else can we come to terms with such cruelness. Adam’s mother paid the ultimate price for doing what she thought was best for her son. I’m sure she made mistakes – but what parent hasn’t.

    More laws and regulations aren’t going to help – it is already against the law to kill innocent children. Laws will not stop this type of evil. I think before we throw money at every problem we perceive may have been the cause, we wait for the investigation to finish and determine from that what our best course of action is as a nation. We also have to consider whether we have culpability as we continue to allow the moral decline of our children, our society and our country. We should ask ourselves each day what kind of example are we setting. What good did we do today.

  16. Thomas C. Wood says:

    To Ms. Gallant, across town from me here in Salem, New Hampshire:

    I have Autism (Asperger’s) & Mild Cerebral Palsy & I am not a Homicidal Maniac.

    I am a Deacon of the Congregational Church of Pelham, NH, the next town over from Salem, NH.

  17. Mooncalf says:

    I am Autistic. So is my brother. I have extensive experience with Autistics. When we are violent it is rarely pre-meditated, is wholely reactive, usually aimed at a single person at a time, and we are unable to be organized enough for long enough to do dammage on anywhere near the scale Lanza did.

    I have spent the last week terrified of potential backlash. That we Autistics will end up locked up, that there will be a National Mental Health Database and all my friends and I will end up in it. I have added 400+ mg of Valerian to my other meds. I find myself wondering which friends will protect or hide me…..

  18. Kinammwei says:

    I am the parent of 2 HFA children who have become “a danger to self and/or others” during major meltdowns. I searched for years to find documented evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence,” I fully agree with the The Autism Society’s statement. “To imply or suggest that some linkage exists is wrong and is harmful to more than 1.5 million law abiding, non-violent and wonderful individuals who live with autism each day.” The Connecticut “tragedy calls attention to the lack of mental health services currently available” it SCREAMS for FAPE to be provided to school children with any Autistic Spectrum Disorder. What services were provided to Adam Lanza when he was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary? Did he receive any direct instruction in Social Skills? During his years in the school system did even 1 of his teachers have special training or certification in the field of Autism? My oldest child spent all 4 years of high school in a remedial reading class because he could not pass the State Reading Assessment. Let him read facts and he will correctly answer any question. Ask him how did the man in the following passage feel: “He hung his head shrugged his shoulders and trudged down the dusty road.” and my son will say there is no correct choice to mark on the test because dirty is not a choice. He was .5 points away from the highest possible score on the State Writing Assessment. Hummmmm???? How can a kid with such low reading scores be such a skilled writer? Pragmatics? My sons had almost no direct instruction in pragmatics. We moved 4 times in hopes of finding a school system that provided FAPE. In one system my oldest was called an idiot by his teacher and then had to sit and listen to each of his classmates stand and tell him what they didn’t like about him. BTW, that teacher decided to become an insurance salesman the following week. During his freshman year, my oldest son asked to attend a School Board Meeting. He wrote a speech on behalf of nonverbal special needs students who were abused by their teacher. He told the School Board Members about his experience of public shaming by a teacher in front of peers. We had move to a different state.. He said the abuse resulted in him HATING teachers and not trusting most adults. He went on to say, “I have a disability but I am smart and I can talk. These kids can’t talk. I am letting you know how much being abused by a teacher messed me up. You are stupid if you let this teacher continue to be with any kids. Fire the teacher!” As for my younger son, despite numerous warnings “My son will eat these teachers up.” “This school is NOT appropriate.” “Teachers at this school are in no way prepared to teach a child like this.”, his public school decided to placed him (age 7, IQ 139), in a charter school for Spectrum students with significant developmental delays. The school was in a high-rise office building in the largest city in the state. To insure student safety a key was required to exit. On his third day of class I received a call from a teacher in full meltdown. My son had taken the only key, let himself out and walked across the street to play in the public park. I almost laughed out loud as I thought, “I told you so!”. When I picked him up at the park and we went to rescue his trapped teachers I asked my son why he took the key. He informed me “I asked to go to recess 3 times and the teachers kept telling me “We will go to recess in a few minutes.” I waited for more than an hour. An hour is 60 minutes and 60 minutes is way more than a few minutes. I knew where the key was and you taught me how to safely cross a busy street, so I took the key and went to recess. Mom, the teachers hear are stupid liars.” This son once threw rocks at a principal who chased him as he ran off campus shrieking “Kick Me Out of this School!” I have so many stories about my children. Some will make you cry, others will make you angry and others are terrifying, but they all have a common thread. There is NO behavioral profile for an individual with any form of autism. Maybe someone with autism inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. If our public schools had trained professionals providing direct instruction of appropriate Social Skills on a regular basis to students with autism they might be able to find a comfortable behavioral profile instead of forever morphing into different characters like an actor looking for a suitable script.

  19. Jean says:

    Many children I have seen that are diagnosed with aspergers have issues controlling anger. I see parents struggle to get help for these kids with nothing out there. I work with the developmentally disabled and money has been cut so far that no one is safe. Individuals who are truly to violent to live in the community are being put in the community any way to save money. These individuals are putting a strain on our police force, ambulances and fire department as every 911 call all have to respond. Then these folks are in major crisis needing to be transported to a mental facility that keeps them for a few hours and sends them home. We have hurt staff, police men are getting injured etc. Not sure how this is saving money. I love what I do, but the original idea of community living has been lost. It was meant for folks who could have a better quality of life being in the community, who with some supports could be successful. It was never meant to be able to manage severe individuals who really need the major support of an institution. Then when these folks really need some mental health support there is none. In the state I live in there is not one psychiatrist that takes the state medical. That leaves the only place to go for help being the mental health facility, that is overloaded already and turning people away daily who they feel are not in severe enough crisis to need their help. It’s scary and if you think about the sudden increase in crime it for sure correlates with the major cuts to Social Services that have happened over the last few years.

  20. Jane C.H. Garcia says:

    Methodically planned executions are not a Hallmark of Autism. However, there are thousands of parents who’ve had to surrender their Autistic children to hospitals and psychiatric facilities to escape the broken bones and beatings they’ve suffered for years at the hands of their Autistic children. So please let’s not gloss over that and make it appear as if there is simply not link between Autism and violence. There is. And far greater in the ASD community than in the neuro-typical community.

    The sooner we are all HONEST – even those of us with non-violent Autistic children – about the very real challenges of this disorder, the more open and helpful discourse that can happen and the more solutions that can be sought.

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