Within hours of the Newtown school massacre Friday, media outlets such as Fox began reporting that the young man police identified as the shooter — Adam Lanza — had an autism spectrum disorder. They said their information came from a comment Lanza’s brother, Ryan, made to law enforcement officials, as well as suggestions from family friends and acquaintances.
Several reporters referred to Lanza’s autism as fact and in the same breath, they mentioned his alleged atrocities – leaving the impression that one had led to the other.
The autism community reacted with horror to that suggestion. advocates took to the Internet to express concern about the way the media was portraying Lanza and autism. Several blogs appeared and were widely shared, including Slate's Emily Willingham, who explained that just because people with Asperger's have trouble reading other people's emotional cues doesn't mean they don't have empathy – and certainly doesn't make them more inclined toward violence. Ron Fournier of National Journal also wrote a widely circulated piece urging readers not to stigmatize those with Asperger's, like his son Tyler, 15.
Tweets abounded in response to the suggestion that there was somehow a link between autism and the elementary school tragedy:
"I've been lucky to work with some VERY wonderful people with autism. Don't stereotype, please," one said. "Would be a huge blow to the wonderful Autism community that has come so far if in fact Lanza was on the spectrum..." noted another.
“We don’t believe that it was the autism that caused this act to occur,” said Peter Bell, executive vice president of Autism Speaks, an advocacy group. “It is not part of the definition of autism.”
There is no link between autism and violence against others. Studies show that anyone with a disability is far more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator of one, and nearly half of teenagers on the spectrum have reportedly been the victim of bullying.
“We need to remember that in the aftermath of horrifying tragedies like this, for fear of adding to the stereotypes and prejudice that Autistic people and others with disabilities already face,” said Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a group of adults who identify themselves as having an autism spectrum diagnosis.
“Autistic Americans are a minority group like any other – we have the same hopes and aspirations as anyone,” Ne’eman, also an Obama appointee to the National Council on Disability, wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “To go to a good school, be employed in a fulfilling job, be welcomed in our own communities – all of those things are damaged when stereotypes and fear color popular perception about who we are.”
Bell said he would like the media and public to put speculation about Adam Lanza’s possible diagnoses on hold until the facts are known. “I think we have an ask to the community as a whole: please don’t rush to a judgement on this,” Bell said. “Once we have the facts, let’s put it into context.”
There are always multiple factors that trigger someone to commit an atrocity like this, he said. Even if Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, that may have no more to do with his actions than the fact that he had white skin and lived in a fancy suburb.
“To try to single out one thing would be dangerous and irresponsible,” Bell said.
Dr. Jerome Schultz, a clinical neuropsychologist and consultant to Boston-area school districts, including Newton and Cambridge, said he’s worried about the effect the tragedy will have on families touched by autism.
Kids with an autism diagnosis are likely to be more anxious than their peers, Schultz said, which may lead to extra worry that someone could bring a gun and start shooting in their own school. Because of the repetitive actions and fixations that are part of the definition of autism, these children may be less able than neurotypical peers to move on from that paralyzing fear, he said.
He’s also concerned about their siblings, hearing media reports connecting autism to such violence. “I worry about the brothers and sisters of these kids because they’ve got the tragedy too, but also ‘oh my goodness what would that do to my life if my sibling pulled a stunt like this,’” Schultz said.
He said he’s worried, too, for their parents, who are likely to have less social support than most, because of the isolation and stigma that often comes with parenting a non-typical child.
Bell knows that well. He said that he responded to last week’s tragedy the same way as the rest of the country, with pain and sorrow. But as the father of a 19-year-old who has an autism diagnosis, the news hits him more personally, too.
“I hope people don’t look at [my son] differently as a result of what they’re hearing in this event,” Bell said. “He’s a very gentle, warm, kind soul and someone incapable of doing anything remotely close to this but I do worry that … people might look at him a little differently as a result of this. And to me that’s one of the saddest outcomes.”
Bell said he hopes that there can be an upside to the early, negative publicity about autism. Some people might take the opportunity learn more about the condition, which affects one in 88 American children and an unknown number of adults.
“Hopefully, if there is a positive out of this, it will spark some people to recognize that we have a significant public health crisis and we need to have better leadership and better recognition that something needs to be done,” he said.
Is last week’s rampage a sign that our society is not doing enough to help people with disabilities? Ne’eman doesn’t think so.
“We advocate for more services and better quality supports every day and the system is profoundly in need of change,” he wrote. “But that wasn't what caused the shootings in Connecticut. To try and conflate the two is to suggest that youth and adults with disabilities are inherently violent and need services to prevent us from wreaking havoc on the broader public. That is not a right or accurate message to put out to the world.
“We need a better support system because that will help empower us to live the lives we want to lead – not because we are going to become violent without it.”
Karen Weintraub, a Cambridge-based health/science journalist, is co-author with Dr. Martha Herbert, of "The Autism Revolution."
This program aired on December 18, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.