Adam Lanza and Autism: An Unfortunate Connection

Adam Lanza

ABC News

While still in shock and disbelief from yesterday’s deadly school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I was closely following a real-time feed from ABC when the following was posted to its timeline:

"Ryan Lanza, 24, brother of gunman Adam Lanza, 20, tells authorities that his younger brother is autistic, or has Asperger syndrome and a
“personality disorder.” Neighbors described the younger man to ABC as “odd” and displaying characteristics associated with obsessive-compulsive
disorder."

My heart sank after reading this update as I immediately knew yet again, those within the autism community, including myself, would have their work cut out for themselves in educating a misinformed public due to yet another high-profile case involving violence and Asperger’s syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism). Case-in-point, The Independent, one of Britian’s national newspapers, reported this morning that Lanza possibly suffers from “Asperger’s disease.”

In January of this year, there was the Los Angeles arson case and then in July, there was the Aurora movie theatre massacre.  Now, unfortunately, we have another instance in which autism and violence are being mentioned in the same
breath.  This time, however, it is now tied to one of the most heinous acts of mass murder carried out in American history.  It’s important to note that in all three of these cases, each of the suspects were thought to have Asperger’s by the media and others.  I have yet to see any reports from an actual physician or psychologist confirming these armchair diagnoses.

While the facts of the Newtown school shooting are still emerging, it’s appearing that Lanza may have had a host of psychological and emotional
issues.  However, if a high-functioning autism diagnosis is eventually confirmed, everyone needs to remember the following: Adam Lanza carried out these horrific acts in spite of his Asperger’s, not because of it.  

As investigators begin to peel away the layers from this young man’s life, I think we’ll learn that many other underlying factors contributed to his
actions.  I refuse to speculate what those might be, lest I be guilty of stereotyping others (divorce victims, gamers, etc.) the same way autistics have been stereotyped thus far, both in this case and others.

Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that those with autism or Asperger’s syndrome have a propensity to commit violent crimes.  In fact, one study actually disproves this theory altogether and demonstrates that those with autism spectrum disorders are no more likely to commit crimes than their neurotypical counterparts (Barnhill, 2007; Griffith, 10 May 2006).

Further adding to the confusion, the American Psychiatric Association is set to release its DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) in May of next year.  This is considered the standard-bearer for classifying and diagnosing mental disorders.  In it, Asperger syndrome has been completely removed as a separate condition and merged together with other forms of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).  This will undoubtedly further muddy the waters when it comes to the general public’s view on autism, what it is and how it affects those who have it.

My son, who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, currently attends a mainstream school.  My fear is that due to the incessant media
reporting about Adam Lanza’s possible autism, many of his teachers and fellow students will, through no fault of their own, subconsciously look upon him with an element of distrust, speculating whether or not he too is capable of committing similar acts of violence.

The autism community is finally starting to emerge from the "Rain Man" shadow that was cast nearly 25 years ago and the last thing we need is a new stereotype that paints those with the condition as mass murderers. We have too many other battles to fight and do not need this one as well. 

It’s my hope that the media will begin to responsibly report on the Connecticut school shooting and its potential autism connection in the coming days and weeks ahead.

A good start would be to properly reference autism as a disorder and not a “disease.”