Media coverage of the Newtown, Conn. murders did little to dispel the stigma and misunderstanding of people with Asperger’s Disorder. Instead, early reports that the shooter, Adam Lanza, had the condition, created an artificial link between Asperger’s and violence and heightened public fears, according to experts.
While advocacy group representatives from Autism Speaks and the National Autism Center said that their agencies did not suffer any direct backlash, mental health professionals said patients and families definitely felt a detrimental impact.
Rowland P. Barrett, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at Rhode Island’s Bradley Hospital says a number of parents called him to ask if violent behavior is something they could expect from their sons.
“One family that I met for the first time told me their primary reason for coming was to find out if their son was going to be violent as he got older. This was their principal concern,” Barrett says.
Daniel Rosenn, M.D., founder and board member of the Asperger’s Association of New England who practices in Wellesley, Mass., had a similar experience. “Parents were very worried and upset about the linkage in the public’s mind and what this would all mean. They asked, ‘Are my children more likely to do what this guy has done?’”
In New Hampshire where Teresa Bolick, Ph.D., works with the autism/Asperger’s population, the reaction was extreme. School administrators received calls from parents saying they didn’t want their children playing with children with autism or Asperger’s and parents were calling other parents conveying that same message.
“It was very disturbing to everyone,” Bolick says. “We worked to dispel their fears.”
In addition to families, people with Asperger’s were alarmed by how this incident would reflect on them. Jamie Freed, MSW, director of adult services at the Asperger’s Association of New England in Watertown, Mass., says individuals in the population are proud of the diagnosis because of the positive things it allows them to do – such as know a lot about a particular topic, have the ability to hyper-focus and not engage in social game playing.
“We got calls from people reluctant to disclose who had previously been willing to do so,” she says. “If they don’t disclose, it means they cannot request accommodations at work or let friends and potential partners know they have AS.”
She believes, however, that the public is “savvy” enough to know that people are individuals first and “not their diagnoses.”
Several New England psychologists point out that it isn’t clear whether Lanza had Asperger’s or what mental health issues prompted his actions. However, they emphasized that despite early media coverage to the contrary, there’s no link between violent behavior and Asperger’s.
Hanna Rue, Ph.D., BCBA-D, executive director of the National Autism Center and vice president of autism services at May Institute in Randolph, Mass., suggests that individuals with concerns look at peer reviewed journal studies from 2008 and 2012 spelling out the absence of an Asperger’s/violence association.
“There’s no data that I’m aware of that indicates these individuals have a predilection for violence,” agrees Barrett. “However, autism or Asperger’s does not immunize you against having violent tendencies. It doesn’t protect you from having other mental health issues. There’s a misconception that you can only have one condition at a time. Co-morbidity of more than one psychiatric feature is not rare.”
Barrett adds that he has treated hundreds of people with autism and Asperger’s and “none have shown themselves to be a danger to society.”
Several professionals emphasize that people with Asperger’s are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.
“Children with Asperger’s tend to be honest, rule and law abiding, respectful and gentle souls who tend to suffer way more mistreatment, misunderstanding, and indifference from the world at large than they hand out,” says Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., psychologist on faculty of Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.
Another misconception Bolick wants cleared up is that people with Asperger’s are incapable of empathy and don’t care about relationships. “In 30 years, I’ve never met a person with Asperger’s who is incapable of empathy,” she says. “They many show it in a different way, but it’s there.”
Bromfield, author of “Embracing Asperger’s” and “Doing Therapy with Children and Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome,” isn’t surprised that the Conn. massacre incited such strong feelings.
“Because such tragedies are so horrific, they make us want to find answers and solutions that maybe aren’t to be found.”
By Susan Gonsalves