Parents Fear Autism Stigma in the Wake of Newtown Tragedy

Parents whose children have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or other autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are feeling unsettled as news outlets have bandied about reports that the Newtown, Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, may have had an Asperger’s diagnosis, leading some to assume a link between the syndrome and violent behavior. Aspergers’s, however, is not associated with violence, as from The New York Times reports:

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders, who are often bullied in school and in the workplace, frequently do suffer from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. A divorce mediator who met with the parents of Adam Lanza, the gunman, during their divorce told The Associated Press that the couple had said that their son’s condition had been diagnosed as Asperger syndrome.

But experts say there is no evidence that they are more likely than any other group to commit violent crimes.

“Aggression in autism spectrum disorders is almost never directed to people outside the family or immediate caregivers, is almost never planned, and almost never involves weapons,” said Dr. Catherine Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at NewYork-Presbyterian hospital. “Each of these aspects of the current case is more common in other populations than autism.”

Dr. Lord said that in an unpublished review of data tracking several hundred adults with autism over at least the past five years, she and fellow researchers had found no use of weapons. Among more than 1,000 older children and adolescents in that study, only 2 percent were reported by parents to have used an implement aggressively toward a nonfamily member — fewer than in a control group. That finding was repeated in another set of data that she analyzed over the weekend at the request of The New York Times.

But some of the Twitter messages, electronic postings and media reports in the aftermath of the massacre that has horrified the nation have not reflected that characterization of autism.

“Try curing the real disease, Autism, not the N.R.A.,” wrote one individual on Twitter on Sunday night in response to calls for tighter gun control laws.

“Something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety,” said one psychologist on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.”

In a widely circulated defense of the empathic powers of her 11-year-old son, who has an Asperger diagnosis, Emily Willingham, a science blogger, wrote that “he can’t bear to watch people crack tree nuts, like pecans, because being something of a tree nut himself, he feels pain on behalf of the nuts.”

On the DailyKos, a blogger who identified himself as having Asperger syndrome worried that the actions of Mr. Lanza, 20, who killed 20 young children and 7 adults, including his mother, and was described by a classmate as having a “very flat affect,” might be how “people with this disability are defined in the popular imagination.”

His own flat affect, he explained, does not mean that he has no feelings: “Our emotions don’t naturally show on our faces,” he wrote. “This is perhaps the most frustrating part of the Asperger experience, because people think you’re not feeling when you may be feeling even more strongly than they are.”

Image: Serious boy, via Shutterstock

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