School Climate & Safety

Conn. Shooter’s Link to Autism Worries Advocates

January 08, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As news trickled out about the school shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., the immediate reaction of many observers was: There must have been something wrong with Adam Lanza.

“Something” had to be behind the shootings, in which police say Mr. Lanza first killed his mother at her home and then drove to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 1st graders, six staff members, and then himself, last month.

But advocates for people with disabilities were dismayed that the something was, at least at first, identified in the national media as Asperger’s syndrome. Any connection between that syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum, and the deadliest K-12 school shooting in American history is unfounded, advocates and experts say. They worry that any perceived link between the shootings and Asperger’s may unfairly stigmatize those who have the condition.

“The main message to get out to the community is that all kids with disabilities, even kids who are prone to demonstrate violent behavior, are not likely to demonstrate the level that was demonstrated” in Newtown, said Kristine Melloy, the president of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, who also works in the St. Paul, Minn., public schools. “That’s a rare kind of behavior.”

Even if Mr. Lanza, who was 20, had ever been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, it is a developmental disorder present at birth, not a mental-health condition, which may emerge any time in life.

Connecticut authorities have not confirmed that Mr. Lanza had Asperger’s, although his brother and others close to the family have done so to a variety of news outlets. The state’s chief medical examiner has asked researchers at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, to study Mr. Lanza’s DNA for any genetic clues about his actions.

“First and foremost, we know autism didn’t cause this,” said Lisa Goring, the vice president of family services for Autism Speaks, a New York City-based advocacy group. “People with autism have difficulty with communication skills. In no way are they inclined to commit acts of violence.”

Children and adults with autism may be disruptive or belligerent in some scenarios, but there’s no evidence that they are more likely than others to engage in the kind of planned violence that Mr. Lanza perpetrated, experts on the condition have said.

Autism Speaks’ leaders appeared on television news programs after the shootings to try to educate people about the disorder, which affects about one in 88 people in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. The advocacy group also distributed resources to schools that define Asperger’s syndrome and autism and suggest ways to support such students.

Despite the attempts at clearing up misconceptions, Ms. Melloy and others who work with people with disabilities say they worry that new stereotypes will form about autism as a result of the killings.

National Registry?

They also fear the emergence of calls to isolate people with mental-health needs from the rest of society.

“The way to get to mental health is to be with other healthy people,” Ms. Melloy said. Inclusive school environments, she said, help foster better mental health.

While some people with certain types of mental-health conditions may have violent tendencies, she added, “that doesn’t mean they’re going to pick up guns and start shooting people.”

A week after the shootings, however,the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president and chief executive officer, Wayne R. LaPierre, suggested a national registry for people with mental-health problems.

“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark?” Mr. LaPierre said at a press conference in Washington. “A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”

But advocates for people with disabilities argue that such a plan is impractical and could dissuade the ill from getting treatment, and that the stigma associated with it would be deeply harmful to those identified.

Keeping such a database would be a “herculean” task, since it would require daily updates to be accurate, given people’s movement on the mental-health spectrum, said Frederick Streeck, the executive director of the School Social Work Association of America, based in Sumner, Wash. He also raised concerns about the privacy of people listed.

“The labeling that’s involved could be very unfortunate for kids and for families,” he said. “It’s just not something that we need to list on a national database.”

Staff Writer Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this article.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Advocates Worry Shootings Will Deepen Autism’s Stigma

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Are School Buses Safe? An Expert Explains
A perennial concern is getting new attention.
4 min read
Photo of rescue workers and turned over school bus.
Brandy Taylor / iStock / Getty Images Plus
School Climate & Safety Jury Finds Michigan School Shooter’s Mother Guilty of Manslaughter
Jennifer Crumbley was accused of failing to secure a gun and ammunition at home and failing to get help for her son's mental health.
2 min read
Jennifer Crumbley arrives in court on Feb. 5, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.
Jennifer Crumbley arrives in court on Feb. 5, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.
Carlos Osorio/AP
School Climate & Safety A School Removed Bathroom Mirrors to Keep Students From Making TikToks. Will It Work?
The desperate strategy for keeping students in class illuminates the challenge schools face in competing with social media.
5 min read
Empty blue school bathroom showing the bathroom sinks without mirrors.
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety Researchers Analyzed Years of Reports to a School Safety Tipline. Here's What They Learned
More than a third of gun-related tips in one state outlined possible school attacks, a new analysis finds.
4 min read
Illustration of a cellphone with a red exclamation mark inside of a word bubble.
iStock/Getty