Please Don’t Pathologize Asperger’s Syndrome
Did Adam Lanza have Asperger’s Syndrome?
No sooner were the terrible killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School reported than media outlets were abuzz with the question: what caused the shooter to do the unspeakable?
The terms “developmental disability” and “personality disorder” were mentioned; former classmates used words like “unusual” and “disturbed” to describe Lanza; mention of his intelligence and membership in a technology club noted, as well as his mother saying that her son was difficult. None of these small details add up to a diagnosis of anything, but a stunned public mourning slain first-graders and teachers who used their bodies to shield their young charges, grasps for an answer. Naming a possible cause, even wrongly, to explain the unexplainable has seemed to offer a shred of solace.
But singling out Asperger’s is simply wrong, as many — autistic individuals, experts on autism and parents– have been pointing out. “Ultimately, it won’t matter what “disorder” Adam Lanza had, since ‘having something’ can’t be shown to be the reason he committed one of the worst crimes in our nation’s history,” writes a Paula Durbin-Westby, a parent who is herself on the spectrum. Emily Willingham, whose 11-year-old son has Asperger’s, emphasizes:
Planned, social violence is not a feature of autism. Indeed, autistic people are far more likely to have violence done against them than to do violence to others… But if he turns out to have been someone on the spectrum, I’d like to remind everyone that autism is not an explanatory factor in his actions.
In New York magazine,, Adam Martin points out that “diagnoses of Asperger’s are now everywhere.” Psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, states that “there really is no clear association between Asperger’s and violent behavior.”
National Journal Rob Fournier‘s 15-year-old son, Tyler, who has Asperger’s, summed up the matter:
“If you meet somebody with Asperger’s,” [Tyler] said, “you’ve only met one person with Asperger’s.”
Tyler’s point is worth us all noting: Don’t overgeneralize. Don’t stigmatize in a rush to explain inexplicable evil. Autism didn’t cause this tragedy: Asperger’s is a blip on the far-reaching autism spectrum and no two cases are the same.
A Post Called “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”
In the midst of these efforts to set public discourse about Asperger’s and autism straight, Liza Long, wrote I am Adam Lanza’s Mother, in which she described not simply her struggles raising her 13-year-old son “Michael” (not his real name), but her fears. In particular, she wrote about his threats to kill her, stashing sharp objects in a Tupperware and how her two younger sons are trained to run for the car at such times. The backlash against Long has been huge, as by Ruth Davis Konisberg says in Time magazine:
Long’s post went viral, but soon one observer, Sarah Kendzior, took the time to read Long’s entire blog and found some not entirely sympathetic statements from the beleaguered mom, like “I quit! Let the state take care of you and your compulsive inability to stop poking people.” Kendzior also noted that Long and her husband had been involved in a messy divorce, which, while not entirely germane to the question of how to handle a mentally ill child, did not exactly put Long in a favorable light.
As Konisberg observes, the online scrutiny of Long as the mother of a mentally ill child who also may have a psychiatric condition, recalls a previous generation’s blaming emotionally withdrawn “refrigerator mothers” for causing their children to become autism or schizophrenia.
Perhaps in recognition of this, Long and Kendzior have already issued a joint statement about not wanting to start a “mommy war” (the mentally ill mothers with mentally ill children version), but to start a “serious conversation on what can be done for families in need. Let’s work together and make our country better.” As another mother of a child — a teenage male — on the autism spectrum, I am all for this, though I feel everyone is too raw about Sandy Hook School to embark on such a journey.
I can say, I was not surprised that Asperger’s was mentioned so immediately in reference to Adam Lanza. The past few years have seen too many mass killings with guns by 20-something young males. Asperger’s has been mentioned in regard to some — Seung-Hui Cho, James Holmes: Very unfortunately, Asperger’s and autism have become associated with unthinkable, violent behaviors. British psychology professor Simon Baron-Cohen — author of books about autism and the “synthesizing male brain” vs. the “empathetic female brain” — indeed stoked controversy when he wrote about autism and “the science of evil,” which he defined as a lack of empathy, in his most recent book.
Whether or not Adam Lanza had Asperger’s, schizophrenia or another diagnosis is immaterial. He committed an atrocious act and we are a society in mourning. Faced with the daunting task of preventing more tragedies, we need to move away from worrying about labels and ask, how can we best support those who are in so much need and have no idea how to ask for help?
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