Sandy Hook: The Link (Or Lack Thereof) Between Asperger’s Syndrome And Violence

asperger's syndrome, mental healthWhen it comes to a frightening, devastating incident like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Friday, everyone always wants one thing: answers. And how could you not? When dozens of people die in a seemingly random act of violence, we all need somebody or something to point fingers towards in order to make sense of it all. Many of those things being pointed at are completely valid; for example, gun control is important to think about as a contributor to violence just as much as the lack of available, decent mental health care in our country is. After a law enforcement official said that the 20-year-old killer, Adam Lanza, may have had had Asperger’s Syndrome, many have speculated that this somehow contributed to his violent behavior.

Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild autism spectrum disorder characterized by social difficulties, awkwardness and sometimes patterned behaviors and interests. Experts say, however, that this is not the case.

According to University of California, Los Angeles, assistant clinical professor Elizabeth Laugeson:

“There really is no clear association between Asperger’s and violent behavior… I think it’s far more likely that what happened may have more to do with some other kind of mental health condition like depression or anxiety rather than Asperger’s.”

Apparently, high school classmates described the young man as “bright but painfully shy, anxious and a loner,” which can be characteristic of those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Another psychologist, Eric Butter of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said that while people with Asperger’s Syndrome may have a higher rate of aggressive, even mildly violent, behavior than the rest of the population, that there’s nothing to suggest that they would be any more likely to commit something on this scale of planning, intention and violence.

“These types of tragedies have occurred at the hands of individuals with many different types of personalities and psychological profiles,” said Butter. In fact, Laugeson says that people with Asperger’s actually tend to be more rule-abiding.

While I fully understand why people are searching for reasons behind this, there is already an incredible stigma surrounding autism spectrum disorders. People often see those with Asperger’s as “weird” because they may or may not exhibit some different behaviors than people are used to. Growing up, I had more than a few friends with Asperger’s in particular and I have never once seen any of them get angry or violent.

So yes, it makes sense to want to point fingers at one aspect of Lanza’s life to say, “Yes! That’s the one! That’s what led him to do this. Now we know.” But it’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. And making Asperger’s Syndrome the scapegoat is not only incorrect, it’s also offensive.

Photo: Shutterstock

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    • http://www.facebook.com/pdurbinwestby Paula C. Durbin-Westby

      Thank you for posting that. As a mother with Asperger syndrome, and a child who is the age of some of the victims, I was appalled by the senseless gunning down of children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary. I have also been very concerned about the targeting of people with Asperger’s/autism and other disabilities. I wrote this on the topic: http://paulacdurbinwestbyautisticblog.blogspot.com/2012/12/mother-with-asperger-syndrome-grieves.html

    • Lastango

      Actually, I think it was the shooter’s brother who mentioned Asperger’s.

      I’m not aware of any connection whatever between the autism spectrum and violence. In fact, I’ll wager the correlation is negative, and that autistics are far less dangerous than the general population.

      For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s important to be aware that autism is not a mental illness. It’s a congenital defect in the way the brain processes information.

      • Bon

        If Adam Lanz was diagnosed with Asperger’s, you can be be sure that this was one of many other diagnoses he received..one can have a dual diagnosis..but you are correct..Asperger’s is not a mental illness and violence is not characteristic of this brain difference..

    • patfiuman

      Aspie kids are violent and dangerous to themselves and others just google it and see what a lot of aspie parents go thru.We need a mental health system overhaul not gun ban

      • Lastango

        Got links to back that up?

        If you’ve got a point to make that needs research, do your own work.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Payton-Blake/1390912413 Payton Blake

        This is why the world of the internet and news are so harmful to the mental health world and sometimes, society in general.

        The good things are rarely reported, the non violent, every day things are never reported. What you see on the news and the internet are the exceptions. Of course you find things about violence and difficulties online, they’re about the few people who are looking for advice, or they’re the stories the news companies know will grab your attention.

        They do not represent the overall picture and there is a risk of causing more harm than good by encouraging the belief and behaviors that result in victimizing people for being different.

      • Samantha_Escobar

        Not true. I normally don’t flat-out tell commenters they’re wrong, but this simply isn’t true. In the past, I dated somebody with Asperger’s and he was easily the kindest, gentlest, sweetest person I have ever met and treated me better than anybody I’ve ever dated. And, like I said, I’ve had plenty of friends with Asperger’s and I haven’t so much as seen them raise their voice to most people except when excited about something (which everyone does when they’re excited). So, no, this is a totally ridiculous claim. No, Aspie kids aren’t “violent and dangerous to themselves and others.”

      • Bon

        Simply untrue..I’m the sister of a gentle, kind and sensitive brother with Asperger’s..I also worked with teens with the diagnosis..Most are very rule governed and law abiding to an obsessive degree..

    • Alix

      @8616f8967debf4646961b19568625814:disqus That’s a pretty absurd thing to say. Obviously, google is not going to return results for the people with Asperger’s, the overwhelming majority, who are non-violent and likeable. You’re going to find results about bad things that have happened because that’s newsworthy, and you’re likely to find similar results with literally every kind of mental health disorder or cognitive defecit. It’s true that ‘aspie’ kids are a danger to themselves (suicide, hard drug use, other forms of self-harm being very common) but to say that they are a likely danger to others is ridiculous. There’s plenty of healthy individuals who have done seriously twisted things anyway.

    • Katie

      My brother has Asperger’s, and he has never been anything close to violent. He was fairly destructive as a kid (running and screaming around the house, breaking things for no reason, etc.) but has grown into a healthy, wonderful, slightly awkward teenager. He has been in special-ed schools his entire life. However, one of his former classmates is autistic, and he would have meltdowns for no particular reason, lock himself in the bathroom and beat his head against the walls. A kid I went to high school with who also had Asperger’s committed suicide. I’d say Asperger’s doesn’t cause violence, but the social awkwardness, general inability to fit in, and inability to read emotions and relate to other people can lead to depression and violence.

      • Samantha_Escobar

        I think a lot of what causes the depression and anxiety in people with Asperger’s is how other people react towards the condition’s title, and autism in general. If there wasn’t a huge stigma about having autism, I think people with Asperger’s would be much less likely to feel depressed. Instead, they’re often made to feel ashamed and “weird,” and that’s incredibly unfair. :(

    • Mike Paul

      There is some clinical evidence outlined in a recent meta analysis that
      symptoms in Autistic children may improve on dairy and wheat free
      diets. Hence, the possibility exists that Asperger’s patients may also
      not an improvement in symptoms.
      http://cluas.ie/children/aspergers-syndrome/