School Climate & Safety

Conn. Shooter’s Link to Autism Worries Advocates

January 08, 2013 4 min read
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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

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