CNN has not been able to independently confirm whether Lanza was diagnosed with autism or Asperger's, a higher-functioning form of autism. Both are developmental disorders, not mental illnesses. [emphasis added]
Many experts say neither Asperger's syndrome nor autism can be blamed for the rampage.
"There is absolutely no evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence," the Autism Society said in a statement. "To imply or suggest that some linkage exists is wrong and is harmful to more than 1.5 million law-abiding, nonviolent and wonderful individuals who live with autism each day."
Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist and autism expert at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, also said the gunman's actions can't be linked to autism spectrum disorders.
"Aggression and violence in the ASD population is reactive, not preplanned and deliberate," he said.Bonnie Rochman writes at Time:
Calls and emails to Autism Speaks' hotline are up 130% since Friday's shooting as worried parents wonder how to channel their concern. In an effort to address possible backlash against people who have autism, this week Autism Speaks plans to release formal suggestions for how to educate school leaders, teachers and friends about the characteristics of children with the condition.
"We've had a number of families say their children's classmates have said, 'I hear the shooter has autism, and doesn't your brother or sister have autism?'" says Peter Bell, Autism Speaks' executive vice president for programs and services. "It seems like they're wanting to put the blame squarely on the fact that the shooter may have had autism. This rush to put a label on the situation has caused significant harm already."
In a survey sent Monday to 31,000 parents who are members of MyAutismTeam, a social network that serves as a Facebook for parents who have children with the condition, 30% indicated that they're worried their children will be treated differently by teachers and other students in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.
They're also nervous that bullying -- kids with autism are already disproportionately targeted -- will increase. "To have this association to mass murder pinned to them is like putting another target on their heads," says Christine Pasour, the mother of an 11-year-old son with Asperger's.Maia Szalavitz writes at The Atlantic:
One of my colleagues, Dr. Bruce Perry, is senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy and a child psychiatrist who has worked with or consulted on cases involving both children exposed to extreme violence and young perpetrators. He consulted with authorities guiding the response to Columbine.
To be clear, no one can diagnose a patient from afar, and there are too many unknowns in this case to diagnose Lanza. Still, for academic purposes and to the point of accurate mental health discussion and addressing ideas about identifying at-risk individuals, Perry says of the shooter: "My first thought was that he might have had a psychotic break -- and that his odd, disengaged behaviors earlier in life -- reasonably labeled as something like an ASD by some -- might actually have been prodromal psychotic disorder."
And as for autism -- if it ultimately turns out to be what Lanza had -- that diagnosis is actually linked with reduced crime risk. People with autism tend to be extremely conscientious, often strictly following moral rules in ways that cause social problems; for example, by avoiding white lies. "From what we do know about ASD, [the shootings] would be pretty atypical," says Perry. "There's no risk in the diagnosis itself," agrees Dr. Harold Bursztajn, co-founder of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at Harvard Medical School, who has reviewed the research.
Both the major autism charity, Autism Speaks and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) have issued press releases trying to prevent the Connecticut attacks from leading to increased stigmatization and fear of autistic people, noting the data showing no connection between the diagnosis itself and violence. Fears related to autism, however, remain. "Some popular perceptions are based in our own social anxieties in the face of such tragedy," says Bursztajn, "The quick fix becomes diagnosis instead of analysis."
Another reason many believe that autistic people are at higher risk of committing violent crimes may be a misunderstanding of what is meant by deficits in empathy, which are associated with autism in the public mind. Says Ari Ne'eman, who is autistic and is president of ASAN, "One of the most damaging stereotypes surrounding autistic people is the myth that we lack empathy. In fact, the research literature has confirmed what we've been saying for the longest time: we experience empathy at the same levels as the neurotypical population, even if the outside world doesn't always understand our ways of communicating it."