ARCHIVED – Why Aspergers is not a Scapegoat for the Connecticut Tragedy

ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.


“A troubled 20-year-old loner with a history of autistic behaviour is the monster behind a horrific shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that left 26 people, including 20 children dead on Friday” were the words the Daily Mail used to report the Connecticut tragedy last week. This made me angry for two reasons, the first being that it uses an incredibly upsetting tragedy to cause hype and speculation, and secondly, in doing so it has insensitively caused irrefutable damage to a whole population of people with autism and their friends and family. You do not have a history of ‘autistic behaviour’, you either have it for life or you don’t. It is not like having a history of violent behaviour; I don’t wake up one day and display lots of ‘autistic behaviour’ then wake up the next and am perfectly fine again.  It is a whole person, it is their way of thinking, and it is not a mental illness and should not be used to describe bad behaviour. Semantics aside, the Daily Mail is not the only culprit pointing the finger at Asperger’s being a possible reason behind Adam Lanza’s motives.

Adam Lanza may have Asperger’s, but this does not automatically mean that because he then went on to become a mass murderer, his autism was to blame, anymore than the colour of his skin or his ingrown toenail was; the two are not mutually inclusive. There have been many similar tragedies carried out by people not on the autistic spectrum and many people on the autistic spectrum who cannot stand violence, in fact most; as a population we can be rule abiding to the point of annoyance. In fact in a very interesting study into the criminal behaviour of those with autism by Hippler et al, a group of subjects with Autism had a conviction rate of 1.30% for crimes committed, which was very similar to the general male population’s conviction rate of 1.25.

So why does autism often become implicated in such cases? I believe the main reason is that many of these people have traits which appear similar to autistic traits. For instance like those with autism, psychopaths experience a lack of empathy and are typically ‘loners’, so when you are faced with a killer who has acted unbelievably cruelly, it seems like this must be to blame. However, what is often missed is the difference between the two disorders when it comes to such impairments. A psychopath has no capacity to feel any kind of empathy or anything towards any other human being, where as someone with Aspergers has certain empathy impairments but is capable of feeling for others on the whole, their impairment just means that they perceive empathy differently to others. Emily Willingham has described this point much better than I could even attempt to in her blog post “Autism, empathy and violence: One of these doesn’t belong here”.

obama-newtown_2431646bMy final question: So if this is the case, then why does the media report it? As I wrote in a blog post a few months ago, Autism Vs The Media, it is because it gives a very satisfying reason to some very shocking behaviour; it avoids blaming society or calling for any serious changes to be made, and instead focuses in on the individual in a way politicians and society can ignore and trust in the capable hands of our scientists and doctors. People avoid using the word psychopath, mainly because we do not understand enough about it. Unlike autism, which is very popular at the moment, it is a mental illness, but one that we have no way of treating or managing currently, it’s a scary prospect to think we live in a society with these people. That is not to say that Adam Lanza was a psychopath, or that due to his Aspergers he did not struggle with mental health difficulties, but they were not the cause and to link them is purely speculative. Comorbid mental health difficulties occurring in someone with autism is extremely common, but they do not create cold blooded killers and criminals. For that the American government should look much closer to home, particularly at their gun laws and their mental health resources, as Guardian writer Philip Oltermann suggested today in his article “After the Newtown shooting, is it time to talk about mental health and crime”.

The Autism Research Institute released this statement after the tragedy:

“December 15, 2012

The staff at the Autism Research Institute is deeply saddened by the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut December 14th. In the hours following the attack, some in the media reported the shooter may have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. 

This morning, the leadership of ARI’s Autistic Global Initiative project issued the following statement:

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the community of Newtown, Connecticut today in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy. Some public comments have drawn potentially inaccurate and stigmatizing conclusions about a link between the diagnosis and a propensity for violence and lack of empathy.

The autism community has long labored toward building understanding, awareness, and trust within communities throughout the United States and the world. As adults with autism living productive, peaceful lives, we urge the media and professionals who participate in speculative interviews about the motives of the accused shooter to refrain from misleading comments about autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. The eyes of the world are on this wrenching tragedy – with 1 in 88 now diagnosed, misinformation could easily trigger increased prejudice and misunderstanding.  Let us all come together and mourn for the families and exercise the utmost care in discussions of how and why it  occurred.”

Valerie Paradiz, Ph.D.”

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