Newtown Violence: A Defense of Autism Spectrum Disorders


Asperger's Syndrom RibbonI remember when I first heard the description of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza on the radio.  “Quiet student, kept to himself, carried a briefcase at school.”  “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “Asperger’s.”  Nobody was talking about a potential developmental disability diagnosis at that point.  But from that short description I knew what would be confirmed in the hours and days that followed.  It was the briefcase that sealed the deal.  And why the “oh no?” Because I knew that there would be those who blamed Adam Lanza’s violent acts on the disorder with which he had been diagnosed.

But it seemed that I was happily mistaken until I saw yesterday’s article in Mother Jones magazineThe Media’s Post-Newtown Autism Fail.  The article takes the reader through a number of misrepresentations of Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the media in the days following the Newtown tragedy.  Claims that people with Asperger’s are incapable of empathy, avoid human relationships, and even have something missing in their brains.  And further, that this combination of characteristics allows people with ASD to be more violent than the average, typically-developing person.  As if people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (and those who love them) don’t have enough stereotypes to deal with, now the suggestion that they are more likely to be murderers?!?

Yes, often people diagnosed with ASD can be socially awkward and have a difficult time relating to others.  It’s true that they often need to be taught certain social skills that their typically-developing peers learn intuitively.  But these skills can be learned and special education programs focus on teaching them.  Can people with ASD still come across as a bit odd?  Sure.  But big deal.  There are plenty of people without diagnoses who are weird and inappropriate socially, in case you haven’t noticed.  So get over it.

And as for the violence?  Here’s what we know: People with ASD are less likely to be violent than their typically-developing peers.  They are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.  Mental illness is a better predictor of violence than is development disability.  And when people with ASD are violent, it is typically due to a deficit in communication skills (i.e., they show frustration behavior because they are unable to communicate their needs effectively), not predatory violence against others.

Just to really give you something to chew on, here is a short list of famous people who are speculated to have had Asperger’s Syndrome:

Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Franz Kafka, George Washington, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Alfred Hitchcock, Isaac Asimov, Jim Henson, Emily Dickinson, Bill Gates, Michelangelo, Beethoven and Mozart!

I don’t tend to think of any of them as missing something from their brains or being violent, do you?

For a longer list of famous people with or speculated to have Asperger’s, click here.

 

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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4 Responses to Newtown Violence: A Defense of Autism Spectrum Disorders

  1. Christy Cole says:

    Amen!!! ASD alone does not a murderer make!!!!

  2. Christy Cole says:

    Amen!!! ASD alone does not a murderer make!!!! Thanks for trying to combat the misinformation and downright stupidity that abounds.

  3. Thank you. I thought the same thing when I heard about the brief case but I didn’t have the knowledge to articulate it as well as you did.

  4. Dawn Rock says:

    I’m with you Karen. I’ve taught a (small) number of kids with Asperger’s/ASD and have found them all to be kind and loving – and frustrated and frustrating – and never violent. Anecdotal, yep. Nonetheless, this underscores our need to devote nationwide attention to the care we are giving to both the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. And, that being said, and having worked in countries in far worse shape in this regard, I believe this need goes way beyond the US.

    And yet, acts like this appear to be more common in the US, so perhaps there are cultural issues at play here as well. Makes the head and heart ache…

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