In recent days, a troubling question has emerged from the tragic shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Did autism play any role in this tragedy?
On Friday, December 15, 2012, Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot 28 individuals. Twenty-six died, including 20 children and 6 adults. Two adults suffered injuries. Then, Lanza turned the gun on himself. Police later found that he had shot his mother dead before driving to the school.
Why is autism such a question in this situation? Adam Lanza had a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome which is an autism spectrum disorder. Some people have linked this autism diagnosis with the violence he perpetrated against his mother and the school. But, is this a fair statement?
Looking at a list of symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome offered by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at their website, violent behavior is not a known sign of this disorder. Experts say that those who have this disorder are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrate it. However, it is naïve to say that Asperger’s syndrome played no role in what led up to the shooting.
Those with Asperger’s syndrome are often victims of bullying and social isolation. In fact, almost all episodes of violence in individuals with this disorder start as a reaction to an actual or perceived attack against them. Reports state that Adam Lanza’s mother was trying to get her son psychological help after he began to isolate himself in recent months. Some speculate that Lanza may have perceived this attempt as an attack.
Did Asperger’s syndrome play a direct role in the shooting? By all indications, no. The condition is not known to cause violent episodes. However, the bullying and social isolation often accompanying this disorder may have contributed to his mental state.
Experts who have studied these types of incidents say that those who commit mass murder share common characteristics. They have a high IQ, come from dysfunctional families without a father in the picture, suffer abuse as a child, and are often loners. They are socially and personally isolated and perceive the world as their enemy. Many of these characteristics apparently fit Lanza’s personality.
The exact cause of this tragedy may never be completely clear. Was he feeling isolated due to other people’s perceptions about his Asperger’s syndrome? Did his mother’s attempts at getting him help trigger his actions? Was there undiagnosed mental illness somewhere in the mix? There are no clear answers to these questions.