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Please Don’t Pathologize Asperger’s Syndrome

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?

 

Related Care2 Coverage

Actually, Mentally Ill People are More Likely to Be Victims of Violence

The End of Asperger’s Syndrome

Autistic People Feel “Too Much,” But Can Therapy Actually Help?

 

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118 comments

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3:35AM PDT on Aug 22, 2013

"care is the best (preventative) medicine" True!

2:41AM PDT on Mar 31, 2013

Thanks

5:21AM PST on Jan 28, 2013

Care is always the best medicine

9:31AM PST on Jan 24, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

11:06PM PST on Jan 16, 2013

Thanks for this article. Thank you, Kristina Chew, for your evident tolerance and understanding. It's heartwarming and sadly, much needed. Thx! :)

12:07PM PST on Jan 4, 2013

@Mary L.
You mean to say that you used your imagination in playing a game? You didn't need computer generated firearms with real looking blood and guts on a computer screen? I'll bet you played army outside in the fresh air too. And no one got hurt... go figure...
Though I'm not old enough to have lived it, but my father has told me stories of "gun clubs" in schools. They were common everywhere because hunting for food was common. And no one got hurt... go figure...
My dad used to go to school with a shot gun over his shoulder at 10 years old. Right after school, he'd go squirrel hunting. And no one got hurt... go figure...
Just about every single home in America said prayers before going to bed, said grace before each meal, attended church regularly. And no one got hurt from doing that... go figure...

To all the liberals:
You might not like guns and don't own one, and that's your right.
You might not believe in God, and that's your right.
But when an intruder is pounding your door in to get at you and your family, the first thing you are going to do is call someone with a GUN, and PRAY they get there in time.

Maybe you should just be left to protest the invasion, protest the robbery, and protest the raping of the women in the house. I'm sure that illegally owning, unregistered gun toting, thug would be happy to sit down with you and talk.

I'm sorry for the harshness, boldness and rashness of my comments, but this is a ha

11:04AM PST on Jan 4, 2013

Bruce M. The gun sure helps. We we played war and soldiers not one kid died when I pointed my finger at them and said bang.

Go figure.

12:15PM PST on Jan 1, 2013

You can’t excuse killing unarmed women or children, I’m sorry but you just can’t. This guy knew what he was doing, it’s not like he just had a glitch, it wasn’t his autism that did this to him, it was his 0% of conscience that did this to him.

Autism is a communication disorder, it’s not necessarily one of those disorders that cause people to harm unarmed people. Many autistics know the difference between right and wrong, it may not seem that way, but if you talk to enough of them they will know trust me.

They might not be “experts” at communication, but they aren’t killers at heart.

Most of them try to stay under the radar or try to make friends to survive in society. They don’t need to kill women and children who are unarmed to survive. Most of them know in some form or another that killing unarmed people is wrong!

It doesn’t matter if he had Autism, he killed a bunch of unarmed women and children! It can’t be excused, you can’t use autism to excuse this, and you can’t forgive the kind of evil he pulled off. Most autistics aren’t evil people, but this one was, not because of his autism, but more like because of his character.

8:01AM PST on Dec 31, 2012

Not only did Adam Lanzer need help but his mother certainly did too! Our mental health professionals could have assisted both of them but there is such a "stigma" in seeking help, discussing problems and in admitting that, as a parent, we can't solve all problems. My one major question is, why would a mother, of which I am, knowing that her child had problems, would she take him to a gun range, teach him how to shoot and then go off and leave him by himself, when he did have a father? I'm sorry but there are many dysfunctional divorcees with children that should learn from this. Divorced parents, with problem, confused, resentful or bitter children, should recognize that professional mental and emotional assistance is nothing to be ashamed of and should be considered! Even "normal" children can have problems adjusting to a divorce, but more so, children that often have high intelligence, and/or emotional problems. The stigma of getting help rests on the parents and regardless of the circumstances, this help should be provided.

6:05AM PST on Dec 26, 2012

Marianne C.

I don't know much about Borderline Personality Disorder, outside of I think I have it (my doctors scoff at my "i think I have this!!!" cries)

I guess everything is Aspergers now, right? htat is why they remove it.

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