Among the lingering effects of the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn. could be a host of misconceptions about autism and that has many touched by the developmental disorder worried.
Autism advocacy groups are reporting dramatic spikes in calls, emails and website visits a week after 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The gunman in the case, Adam Lanza, 20, was reportedly diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
Citing several studies on the disorder, experts say that autism is in no way linked to the type of planned violence Lanza displayed. But a slew of media outlets in the initial aftermath of the shooting suggested otherwise. Now advocates are concerned that the impact of the misleading reports could be a lasting one.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of the damage has been done,” said Michael John Carley, executive director of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership, who’s worried both about public perception of people with autism and about new fears from those on the spectrum.
“Part of our job is to convince people that the outside world isn’t such a scary place. This really erodes a lot of that trust,” Carley said.
At Autism Speaks, officials said that calls and emails to their helpline are up 150 percent since the shooting. Similarly, The Autism Society reports that traffic to their website increased 30 fold. Those contacting the groups include parents curious about how to discuss the shooting and its aftermath with their children who have autism, people with the developmental disorder fearful of a backlash and educators wanting advice on broaching the tragedy with their students.
So far, fallout fears have been largely unfounded, with advocates saying they are not aware of any cases of bullying as a result of misconceptions surrounding the school shooting. Nonetheless, anecdotal reports indicate that the ripple effects could be more subtle.
Peter Bell, executive vice president at Autism Speaks, said he heard about a middle schooler in Utah who defended his brother and others with autism at a school assembly after a peer suggested that autism was behind the Connecticut school massacre. Bell characterized the story as one of a handful of “examples of insensitivity” that are being encountered.
Meanwhile, Scott Badesch, president of The Autism Society, said he fielded a call from a man wondering whether he should approach his boss to explain that his diagnosis does not mean that he plans to shoot his colleagues.
“This is just one more obstacle that we have to deal with,” Badesch said. “People have called us saying that they are afraid to go outside. They’re afraid that they’re going to be bullied.”
Nonetheless, Badesch said he’s hopeful that something positive can come from the tragedy.
“If there’s anything good that can come out of this, it’s that we can can be part of a conversation about what autism is and isn’t,” he said.