Amid rampant news coverage of last Friday’s tragic shooting, and the announcement that the shooter suffered from Aspergers Disorder, there is a growing concern for those with Autism Spectrum Disorders: That they will be marked as likely to partake in premeditated violence. This concern is no more evidently clear to me than in the below statement from the Asperger Syndrome and Higher Functioning Autism Association of New York:
“Calls and emails to AHA/Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Association have increased dramatically this week, most notably with inquiries connected to the devastating tragedy of the lives taken in Newtown, Connecticut.
Our community is reaching out to us for help on how to speak to their children about the unspeakable, and to ask “Why?”. They want to know why some of the media’s coverage has compounded this tragedy with reports that the person who committed this heinous crime had a diagnosis of Asperger’s/autism. Each still-unsubstantiated mention seems to equate this extreme violent act with this diagnosis.
I have been active in the autism community for almost 20 years and executive director of AHA/Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Association for 10 years. I am also the parent of an adult with Asperger Syndrome. I have worked with thousands of individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum, their families, and the professionals who serve them.
In my experience, and in the majority view, individuals living with this diagnosis are most likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. There is no scientifically sound data to support a connection between this diagnosis and the violence that has left a community and a nation reeling.
But the impact of this implication can be terrifying to those on the spectrum, adding to the challenges they already face. And parents and professionals are seeking advice on how to talk to children and adults on the autism spectrum, and how to respond to the community. We want our members to know that a calm, measured, informed response to our children and the extended public is the best approach. Below is a list of links to helpful resources.
We also wish to point out that, while making the connection between Asperger’s, autism and this type of violent act is completely erroneous, there is something positive in the fact that the individuals, parents, and professionals of the autism community are banding together to become a part of this national dialogue. Every opportunity is being taken to correct this misinformation and to consistently inform the public of what families and individuals face on a daily basis. And in all my years, I never thought I would see the day that in some instances major news outlets would be accurately advocating on behalf of families with developmentally delayed children and adults.
For many years, we have worked hard with our members to provide a safe, non-judgmental environment to share concerns, questions and feelings. Please do not feel alone at this time; we are just an email or phone call away. We continue to stand united in our strong support of the autism community, the communities we live in and, most important, to the parents, children and members of the Newtown community who lost their precious children and brave staff members.
Together, as an accurately informed public, we will move forward. And AHA will be there for you every step of the way.
Pat Schissel, LMSW
Asperger Syndrome & High Functioning Autism Association
You can also find a statement from Autism Speaks regarding this matter here. Autism Speaks has also put together support resources specifically for the ASD population to address the shooting and the aftermath.
While some diagnoses are linked to higher rates of violence, research has indeed not shown any link between ASDs and premeditated violence. In the New York Times article above Dr. Catherine Lord, someone I have met and spoke with personally and fully admire, states the following about violence and ASDs:
““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.”
This misunderstanding suggests to me, and makes it all the more clear, what many in our profession have been saying all along: These events PROVE that we need improved understanding of mental health needs, mental health diagnoses, and better mental health services all around! Blaming gun control laws or blaming a diagnosis for a violent act ignores the bigger picture. We live in a society which neglects to assist let alone understand those with mental health needs, and this often unfortunately leads to misunderstandings and tragedies whether it be suicide or mass violence. This is something which needs to be addressed NOW on a broader level before more misconceptions develop, or more violence occurs. \
Written By Georgianna Reilly, LMSW
SJS Staff Writer