Don’t Blame Asperger’s, Ctd

A reader writes:

My son who went to elementary school in Newtown many years ago has Aspergers. He was horrified by what happened on Friday. He was afraid to go to school yesterday because he thinks people will assume that because he has Aspergers he is a potential mass murderer.

Parents of children with Aspergers have mercifully risen to the occasion. Another writes:

My 12-year-old son was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was seven. After the shootings at Sandy Hook, I found myself reading obsessively online to find out how journalists were accounting for the horror.  Once I read that Adam Lanza had been considered a socially awkward loner, I feared he would be identified as having Asperger's.  (I recalled that after the Jeffrey Dahmer killings, an African-American friend told me that she was so glad he was not black.) I have talked to my son about how he may be perceived differently in the wake of Sandy Hook.  I have told him he should never participate in the violent joking rhetoric so popular among 12-year-old boys because it could be misconstrued.


I am a child and adolescent in-home therapist who works with children with severe emotional and behavioral problems. As one of the only male, community-based mental health therapists in my county, I have a caseload mostly made up of very "aggressive" males (often also shy, awkward, insecure, creative, funny once you get to know them, deeply wounded and at their core – human). For them to be eligible to see me, they typically have been hospitalized for serious threats to other people, which are often times family members.

Needless to say, much of what we know about Adam Lanza's story resonates with me on a profoundly personal level. Ditto for the mother who penned the beautiful and heart-breaking essay "I am Adam Lanza's Mother". These are my kids. I spend my days at their kitchen tables, on their porches and at their schools. Working with them and their families to understand and try to manage unspeakable feelings and impulses.

In most them, Asperger's has either been suspected or diagnosed. We need to be extremely cautious in how we view causality in this case, but one of the possible theories out there is that part of Asperger's involves an impairment in "mirror neurons", which some suspect are the neurological basis for empathy. Exploratory research has established that children with conduct disorder, often a childhood precursor for people diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder, may also suffer the same impairment.

Perhaps this is a way for grieving families and a broken system to rationalize the cold and calculating way in which they can sometimes navigate the world. Maybe. But just as we know of people with anti-social personality disorder, most of them are not violent, or at least learn ways in which to control their impulses. They may be CEOs, politicians, lawyers, artists, or janitors. Same can be said for individuals with Asperger's. However, when you have an individual who has difficulty reading social cues, relating to others, empathizing AND combine it with violent impulses, among other important risk factors such as traumatic history, early attachment issues, limit resources and social support, it can really become a horrific situation for that individual and those who love them.

We all want to make sense when tragedies happen, and have an almost existential need for a "primary cause". Asperger's or any other mental health issue is not going to be it in this case. We don't even know if it was ever diagnosed yet. But as is the case with the dialogue about gun control, we need to honestly examine all of the underlying causes with grace and sincerity. Only then can we begin to understand and hopefully prevent these future horrors from happening.  

Earlier discussion here.