Autism TreatmentAutism Information for Parents, Practitioners & Professionals…

Autism Information for Parents, Practitioners & Professionals…

Stacks Image 217

Who, or what can we blame for the wanton, senseless, utterly atavistic killing of 26 innocent people at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT? The person who pulled the trigger for sure, but what else? We long for a simple, straight forward answer. My mother would have said "A person has to be crazy to do something like that!'" But my mother wasn't a mental health professional, she was a butcher's daughter with an 8th grade education, the mother of two sons and married to a man who worked with his hands for a living. She tended to think things were pretty straight forward and was leery of fanciful explanations. Lots of people today aren't very different from my mother, they think there should be something obviously wrong with the person who committed such an act. But sometimes the most readily identified answer isn't the correct one.

The recent appalling mass killing in Newtown, CT has led to speculation there may be a connection between violent behavior an autism spectrum disorders. The perpetrator, Adam Lanza, was claimed to have been diagnosed with some form of higher functioning ASD, according to family contacts. He and his mother apparently had a history of conflict with his public school over his educational services. I can’t begin estimate the huge number of parents and their kids that are in similar situations throughout the US who presumably don’t kill anyone. Several forensic psychiatrists have written articles hypothesizing such a link based on a very small number of case studies.

CONTINUE READING HERE: The assertion Lanza’s violence was related to an autism spectrum diagnosis poses problems for several reasons. First, we have no verified independent report from a qualified professional of the validity of such a diagnosis for Mr. Lanza. Second, even if he had been diagnosed with some form of ASD that does not mean that such a diagnosis was specifically related to violent behavior. Empirical evidence regarding the behavioral and psychological characteristics of people with higher functioning autism suggest such a link is unlikely. That doesn’t mean it is impossible, but unlikely. I’m not aware of any research on a larger sample of individuals who have committed violent crimes that shows people with ASDs are over-represented among such violent perpetrators. When people with ASDs get into trouble with law enforcement officials it is most often due to failure to understand appropriate social boundaries, such as inappropriate touching, which rarely involves any violence.

One of the most serious problems with attempting to link Lanza’s violent behavior to a possible ASD diagnosis, is that it disregards everything else about him. Mr. Lanza also possessed an array of characteristics that were related to his genetic makeup (independent of ASD) inherited from his parents, any other biological characteristic that may not have been immediately apparent (such as having been the result of a troubled pregnancy and delivery) and his personal history. We have no idea whether Mr. Lanza was using alcohol or other recreational drugs, for example. For purposes of comparison, people who are highly driven Type A people, are often successful in their fields, not because some of them are also prone to depression, anxiety or have an ASD diagnosis. They are successful because they are intelligent and exceedingly hard working. We would be unlikely assume they are successful because they are anxious or have an ASD.

People with Asperger disorder and/or Pervasive Developmental Disorder NOS (which will disappear from the diagnostic manual shortly) tend to be socially shy, anxious and perfectionistic. They are often exceedingly conscientious with attention to detail. They are often concerned that everything be done a particular way, which mental health and educational workers refer to their “just so,” problem. They often lack a very thorough understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings (who does understand others fully?), though they may get along reasonably well in most of everyday life. They frequently have few friends and as adolescents, may have conflicts with parents over rules of everyday life, not so different from other kids their age.

It is tiresome to hear news reports of comments by neighbors of killers reporting they seemed like an ordinary person. Nearly everyone seems like an ordinary person much of the time unless they are blatantly psychotic or have a very severe developmental disability. I doubt Jeffrey Dahmer discussed with his neighbors eating people or having sex with corpses. He was able to keep it together much of the time when around others, so he appeared to be an ‘ordinary person,’ even if a little odd. Such remarks from casual acquaintances are generally very misleading.

If it turns out there actually is some connection between Lanza's mental health diagnosis and his violent actions, I can guarantee you there will be much more to it than that the diagnostic number 299.8 behind his name in the chart in his doctor's office.

Finally, all of these attempts to point a finger at a person’s mental health diagnosis overlooks the most obvious contributor to the deaths in Connecticut: Unlimited access to extraordinarily rapid-fire multi-bullet capacity guns, intended for military use. If Lanza had not had an assault rifle in his hands he could not have killed 28 people. Common sense tells us that if every person in the US had an assault rifle, every once in awhile, some unstable person who is very angry over a perceived injustice, or who loses their temper because of a family argument, is going to find it much too easy to pull the trigger on his Bushmaster Assault Rife, and kill a bunch of people much like Mr. Lanza.

I suspect if we asked every adult in the US to name a couple of people they personally know who have anger management difficulties and who are prone to impulsive behavior, nearly everyone would be able to name someone. Right now there are two guns for every three adults in America. The more difficult we make it for such individuals to have access to especially lethal guns, the less likely events such as this will happen.