The news shows were abuzz over the weekend with still unconfirmed reports that the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, had Asperger’s syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism. In the desperate search for answers, some are wondering: could there be a link between autism spectrum disorders and this kind of catastrophic attack?
In a word, no. Autism experts are rushing to quell the notion that the two are somehow connected. Although kids on the spectrum can be reactively aggressive out of frustration, the kind of premeditation required to carry out an attack of this magnitude is totally inconsistent with what we know about this disorder. The hallmarks of ASDs are repetitive behavior, trouble with social interaction and communication challenges—not long-term violent tendencies.
“One of the most important things I want people to know is that autism did not cause this,” says Lisa Goring, vice president of family services for Autism Speaks. “By definition, people with autism are not inclined to perform planned acts of violence. A person with autism can have other conditions too, including mental illness, but this did not happen because of autism.” In fact, kids with an ASD are more likely to be victims of violence themselves than to perpetuate it against others, according to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. A study by Autism Speaks found that 65 percent of kids on the spectrum have experienced bullying.
Judith Ursitti, director of state government affairs for Autism Speaks, is worried for kids with autism, like her 9-year-old son, Jack. “It’s already hard enough for our kids walking in this world, dealing with the stigma that they deal with, and then they have this on top of that,” she says “People are going to connect those dots unfairly.”
“First and foremost, our thought go out to the families,” says Goring. “We are all searching for answers, but it can be so irresponsible to label autism as the cause of this because we endanger totally innocent kids.”
Note: The term Asperger’s is being eliminated from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. Instead, it will be considered an autism spectrum disorder.