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In Shooting’s Aftermath, Autism Backlash Feared


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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.

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Comments (13 Responses)

  1. Ruth Redmond says:

    I have a son with both Down Syndrome and severe Autism. He is non verbal and very mild mannered. He is often treated like he is a dangerous person out in public prior to the horrific occurence. The public needs to know that what that person did in Conneticut (which we all know was horrific) was not because he had Aspergers. It was because he had a very severe form of a mental illness that was obviously not addressed by either his family or the schools he attended. I did not think the media should have ever released this information which may not even be accurate. This was very wrong of the media to state this as a possible cause of his terrible action. Now even more children will be afraid of people who have Autism of any form or appear to be different in any way. This was about as ignorant as stating that he was premature at birth!

  2. Sylvia Hebel says:

    my grand daughter is also not really verbal. She is extremely shy, and is very small for her age. I have already had to tell a neighbor that autism was not the problem with Lanza. She was quick to tell me that she didn’t believe that this was right(I am assuming that she meant autism itself). For the ignorant, the prejudiced, the fearful, this is one way to further their ignorance a prejudice. This is akin to racial prejudice, where no-one really knew African-American people, but they “just know that they are all rapists and killers.” We must protect our children from these attitudes.

  3. George Buzzetti says:

    According to the recent Huffington Post article the mother was ready to commit her son, the shooter, to a mental institution. Also, it revealed that the mother spent a lot of time with kindergarteners. Now we know why he shot his mother and went for young children. It sure makes sense in a twisted way now. Why isn’t the regular press talking about this? People who appear to be normal do most of the killing anyway. Look at the pictures of the serial killers. Do most of them look crazy? No way they look like the kindest, gentlest people around. It is what is behind the mask. Now, since Reagan, we have decimated mental health. Now we are paying the price.

  4. DMK says:

    24 hours after the news mentioned “Asperger’s” someone followed a link on my blog (where I blog about our journey with Asperger’s) to my facebook and private messaged me that they “hope my aspie-demon kills me in my sleep”. Yes, the damage has been done. My son, age 9, cries and worries himself sick if he accidentally steps on a bug. Irresponsible media is nothing new but it’s shameful that they have placed further stigma, caused more pain, and increased the challenges for all those on the spectrum.

  5. John AW Richardson Jr says:

    I am a person with High Functioning Autism and I too am worried about possible backlashes from this incident. I was totally worried and depressed following the shooting after learning that Adam L was on the spectrum. However after some more thought I can see how it looks to other poeple who are not educated about Autism or Aspergers Syndrome. I think the shooter had more problems than just Aspergers. One of the media reports from his family said too not to turn your back on Adam because he had unpredicable behavior. In that light his behaviors not what I would call on the spectrum.

  6. Whitney says:

    It seems this country looking for an excuse not to banned military assault style weapons. If they want to address the disabled issues like the lack of equality and financial earnings in general society that is great but as separate and independent issue. However I listen to statement of the NRA and it was disgraceful. As for Aspergers I going be honest with the choice of weapons in not the guns it is a computer. I think this country needs to look at itself long and hard in a clinical way. Passing the blame game will not make this country great instead of diminishes it. A society will always be judge on how it treats the poorest amongst them. This country will be judge on how it treats women, children and the disabled. So far the media has failed in taking responsibility other than pass the blame game and instead how they are treated by the society as a whole.

  7. Karen Williams says:

    I have a 13 y/o son with Asperger’s syndrome. He has had to endure very hurtful comments from peers in school who are insisting that the shooter had AS and they are known to be very violent. Then he was called in to see the principal because another student filed a statement saying that my son was saying there was going to be a shooting in school on 12-21. ALL the kids were talking about that, they were all scared of something horrible happening, yet MY son was the one written up….because he has AS, sadly. He will unfortunately have to live by a different set of rules, for his own protection, and not discuss these sorts of things even though it is ok that other kids are. I fear his every move will be scrutinized now….simply because he has AS. Very upsetting!

  8. Robert Payne says:

    Um, excuse me? Are people blaming Asperger’s Syndrome and/or Autism for what this guy did? Seriously?

    I’m sorry, but screw you guys. I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Diagnosed when I was in elementary school. Guess what else I am? A pacifist. I abhor the thought of inflicting injury upon others, much less ever doing something like this… It’s tragic and terrible, what happened.

    And you know what I think? You should stop finding scapegoats. Video games did not cause this guy to go on a shooting spree. Asperger’s did not cause this guy to go on a shooting spree. The guy was messed up. Video games and Asperger’s does not make people violent. Please, stop being so ridiculous with the blame game, and hold the guy responsible for his own actions.

  9. susan collins says:

    Aspergers was not the cause of this shooting. During some event in this kid’s life, which we will probably never know but at least we should all try to understand.
    Society has a way with words for any disability these days or for that matter what ever subject that can cause harm to another person. Take a look closer, this poor child just graduated from high school, lucky him, because some aspies don’t, and somewhere someone failed him according to him, so he went after what was so precious, innocent little souls which were connected to his mother, a teacher, trying to put him away, after he graduated, this was his breakdown as like so many other people with crimes of this nature, someone did not value him or the case was not a “priority”, but like so many other situations there is not enough help out there…..wake up society, we failed this young man, God bless the little souls of those children who paid dearly, and God bless the soul of his mother, and may God teach us to forgive as we should, but for mortals today, this just is not the case. This subject is heart wrenching, especially since I have a son who has Aspergers. The real deal is in front of us, that is our children. It is never easy being a parent, much less when God makes our children, “different” it is a very hard road to go on. This mother was trying to get help, after school there is not a lot of programs for our children when they are not of college material. Aspergers is not for institional situations. How about a program everyday to make a person feel self worth. They never are able to find jobs on their own. This is what I mean about society. Finish the rest of the tour with some programs to help these situations. This mother worked and was not able to have him by her 24 seven…therefore he went after the very thing she was committed to. This was his breakdown, not hers. God bless this whole horrible tragedy, and the parents and family members of all who were lost that day.

  10. VMGillen says:

    An “autism backlash” will allow the system to avoid dealing, realistically, with the true problem: mental health systems that have nothing to do with supporting the patient. Thanks to the activism of the self-diagnosed, and the energy of parents, we will not see stuff like the over-the-top response now under consideration for those diagnosed as schizophrenic (interestingly, ASD was once known as infantile schizophrenia). The APA’s involvement in ‘treating’ ASD is reprehensible; nevertheless their history with Schiz. is far, far worse. For a real eye-opener, check into the Recovery based treatmenta modalities – the Feds, and New York State, among others, view this as THE evidence-based treatment modality. But it removes primacy from the psychs in treatment, so . . .

    Finally, the reality that many (and particularly HFA/Asbergers) avoid is that, yes: there can, and, sadly, often is, violence attached to autism (both SIB and outward-directed). However, this is NOT violence that involves any kind of planning. Where antecedents are discernable, violence seems to come from frustration, or offensive sensory stimuli – but sometimes there are no clear triggers, so violence seems almost seizure-like. When the public sees a three-person takedown they do not think about reactivity v. considered intent…. they see violence. Simply denying there is a connection is a public relations mis-step: are the deniers liars?

  11. marion schneider says:

    Shame on the media! Once again they have reported without getting all of the facts. It is a huge injustice to the people with devlopmental disabilities and to people without disabilities. We all deserve to have accurate information reported to us. Why don’t they talk much more on the terribly lacking mental health treatment in this country? There lies the real problem.

  12. Jon K. Evans says:

    I recall learning about how Japanese-Americans, including Roosevelt University’s Sue Lofton, were victims of detention, discrimination, and seizure of businesses, for NO other reason other than their being Japanese. Yet, Osama Bin Laden’s sister is staying in this country with nary any resistance.

  13. Millie Wood says:

    I work for the public schools as a Program Director of Special Education in Mississippi. Since that horrible day I have feared the worst with public opinion of our students with disabilities, specifly our students who are on the spectrum. I cried that day for those children, the staff, and their families but I also cried for all the families with children that have a dignosis of Autism becasue I knew what would happen. I finally had to stop watching it because every time they talked about the shooter they menitoned FIRST that he had Autism or Aspergers. Those of us who have dedicated our lives to helping students with disabilities like Spectrum Disorders and those that live with it everyday, KNOW that this person did not do this crime because of Aspergers or Autism. We must continue to educate the media and others on what Spectrum Disorders really are and stop associating this person with Aspergers. Yes, he very well may have had a spectrum disorder but his problems ran much deeper than just being on the spectrum. I pray all those with children, family members, students, etc. will join togeter in educating others.

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