The New York Times is reporting Adam Lanza, the alleged shooter who murdered twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, was on the autism spectrum.
All of us view this heinous tragedy through our own filters, as parents, teachers, siblings, health professionals, and even Second Amendment supporters. Our personal views dictate how we process tragedy. This is true of our 24/7 media – each reporter seeks to find a way into the story, a channel to offer a plausible explanation of the unexplained.
As the mother of an adult child with Asperger’s Syndrome, I am distressed to hear some of the reporting about people with autism. Yet I almost hesitate to admit that I am the parent of a person on the spectrum, because I claim no authority, moral or otherwise. The high ground here would be in the research, and there is no scientific evidence in the literature that suggests any relationship between autism and violence.
My purpose in writing this piece is to re-affirm how the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual" classifies the diagnoses of those on the autism spectrum. (Published by the American Psychological Association, the current DSM in use is version 4, with version 5 expected out in May 2013.)
According to Autism Speaks, the DSM-IV criteria offers physicians a checklist of such items as impairment in eye-to-eye gaze and body posture, a lack of sharing enjoyment with others, delay or lack of speech, inability to engage or sustain a conversation, repetitive behavior and rituals, repeated motor mannerisms, and others.
What the DSM-IV does not outline is any relationship between autism and violence.
Autism is not schizophrenia nor is it maladaptive personality disorder nor is it obsessive compulsive disorder.
In my research I came across plenty of anecdotal information, but anecdotes are not data. I also found anecdotes of persons with autism who were angry about being tainted by the brush of mental illness.
Labor journalist Mike Elk called out “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough who claimed the shooter in the Aurora theatre shootings earlier this year was “on the autism scale.” Here’s what the former Scarborough, a Republican Congressman from Florida, said on his early-morning MSNBC show,
“You have these people that are somewhere, I believe, probably on the autism scale, I don’t know if that’s the case here, but it happens more often than not, people that can walk around in society, that can function on college campuses, can even excel in college campuses, but are socially disconnected. I have a son who has Asperger’s who is loved by everyone in his family and who is wonderful, but it is for those that may not have a loving family and a support group and may be a bit further along on the autism spectrum, an extraordinarily frustrating, terrible challenge day in and day out. and so, I do think, again, I don’t know the specifics about this young man, but we see too many shooters in these type of tragedies bearing the same characteristics mentally.”
Elk, who had recently “come out” as an individual with Asberger’s Syndrome, came up for air in this email to Scarborough,
“Mr. Scarborough’s remarks suggesting that James Holmes, the shooter behind the Aurora movie theater killings, was an Autistic American are as perplexing as they are without evidence. No information on Mr. Holmes has suggested that he displays the diagnostic characteristics of autism and no evidence exists tying autism with violent behavior or threats to public safety. As a parent, Mr. Scarborough should know better than to perpetrate these types of unfortunate stereotypes. Autistic Americans are an integral part of our society and live, work and attend school alongside our non-Autistic peers. There exists no evidence linking autism with violent behavior. By spreading ill-founded and unsupported claims linking autism with violence, Mr. Scarborough does our community real harm. We urge him to reconsider and for him and MSNBC to retract his remarks.”
Bully for Mr. Elk, and shame on those reporters who make assumptions in a tragedy like this. As Mr. Elk said, associating violence with autism serves no purpose. We may never know why this young man killed so many innocent people, including his own mother.
The shooter clearly was a madman, and I understand that there are individuals with autism who have many other issues. However, implications of articles like this one from the Denver Post are clear, and yet offer no insight or real information into the shooter or his motives.
As a country, we need to redouble our efforts toward providing real and comprehensive services for the mentally ill.
Let us mourn for the victims and their families, for the twenty dead children and the six deceased educators, for those who witnessed the carnage, and for the helpers such as policemen and counselors and clergy whose work is just beginning.