Special Education

Conn. School Shootings Unleashed Attack on Disabilities, Too

By Nirvi Shah — December 18, 2012 3 min read
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When a website is created to raise money for a child who has cancer, it might get a million clicks. But that kind of sympathetic outpouring is far more rare for children with mental health disorders, behavioral issues, or neurological conditions, said Kristine Melloy, the president of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, who also works in St. Paul, Minn., public schools.

Yet when the media cited unnamed law enforcement officials who said the gunman in the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last week may have had a form of autism or a mental health condition, the unconfirmed diagnosis was quickly blamed for triggering the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“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 last Friday,” said Melloy, whose organization is part of the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy group. “That’s a rare kind of behavior.”

Children and adults with autism may be violent—but there’s no evidence that they exhibit the kind of preplanned violence the shooter did, noted Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently on CNN.

Lanza’s older brother Ryan told ABC News that Lanza was “autistic or has Asperger’s syndrome and a ‘personality disorder,’” but law enforcement officers investigating the case have not disclosed Lanza’s motives.

Melloy and others who work with people with disabilities worry that new stereotypes will form about autism as a result of the killings. They fear 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,” she said, noting that inclusive school environments help foster better mental health.

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

Police have not said whether the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had ever been diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorder—a developmental disorder. To be clear, that means it’s something a person is born with. On the other hand, a mental health issue is something that can develop at any point in life, Melloy noted.

Even if the shooter had any of the conditions his brother cited, disability advocates say, they were highly unlikely to be the trigger for Lanza’s brutal attack, which killed 20 1st graders and six members of the staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanza also took his own life and his mother’s.

“First and foremost, we know autism didn’t cause this,” said Lisa Goring, the vice president of family services for Autism Speaks. “By definition, people with autism have difficulty with communication skills. In no way are they inclined to commit acts of violence.”

The organization has been making the rounds on media outlets to educate people about what autism is. They also want to stave off further stigmatization of people who have a disorder that affects about 1 in 88 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They have distributed resources to schools that define Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and how to better support a learner with autism, she said.

In this piece for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, parent Emily Willingham, whose 11-year-old son has Asperger’s syndrome, writes that an idea that has spread since last Friday—that people with autism lack empathy—is simply untrue. Nevertheless, she said, some parents are second-guessing their own children.

I know of worried parents who have called local autism organizations, eyeing their sons with Asperger's or autistic disorders, wondering if they are looking at future killers. Many more of us are worried that others are wondering the same thing about their sons. That last is a legitimate concern. In the comments to many articles on the shootings, you'll find otherwise sensible-sounding people writing, for example, that they know 13-year-olds with Asperger's and anger issues who could themselves become Adam Lanzas when they grow up. 'Anger issues' aren't the same as 'inclined to mass murder.' Autistic people are people, just like everyone else. Personalities accompany their neurobiology. Some express themselves with aggression, just like some nonautistic people do."

The Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders wrote a letter this week to its members, noting that “it is important that the media attention regarding children with mental illness does not increase the bullying and social isolation for the children we teach.”

Also worth noting, the group mourned the loss of four educators at Sandy Hook with direct ties to special education, including 1st grade teacher Vicki Soto, who was working toward her master’s degree in special education; Principal Dawn Hochsprung, who previously had worked as a special education teacher; school psychologist Mary Sherlach, who had previously worked as a rehabilitation assistant at a psychiatric facility and with adults with disabilities at a group home; and Rachel DaVino, a special education teacher who began work at the school just this year.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.