In the wake of the tragic events which occurred last week in Newtown, CT, a number of media reports have suggested a link between Asperger’s syndrome (a high functioning form of autism spectrum disorders) and violent behavior. There is no evidence to suggest that persons with Asperger’s are any more likely to engage in planned, violent attacks on others than those from the general population of persons without this disorder.
Autism is defined in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM IV) as behaviors associated with deficits/limitations in three primary areas, including; social skills, communication, and the presence of restricted/repetitive behaviors. These behaviors, especially in the Asperger’s population, can lead to social anxiety, isolation, and depression for some individuals when their experiences in a social world have been mostly negative. However, these experiences are not linked to planned, violet behavior towards others, as has been implicated in some media reports.
Unfortunately, in some cases, persons with Asperger’s can suffer from a co-existing psychiatric condition which could be associated with these more unstable behaviors. At this time, we do not have enough information about the perpetrator to understand how mental illness factored in to his unfortunate attack on innocent children and adults. However, it is very unlikely that autism alone could explain his actions.
In fact, persons with autism tend to be the victims of bullying and victimization due to their social awkwardness and inability to understand and respond appropriately to social cues.
This is not a time for making judgments, stereotypes or preconceived notions regarding a population. This is about one individual with a serious mental health illness and (very likely) unique, contributing psychosocial factors that led to this terrible tragedy. At this time, there is little known about the perpetrator’s illness and treatments (or lack thereof) and the speculation at this time is inappropriate.
It is a time for better education to the general public about autism spectrum disorders, mental illness, and the distinction between the two. It is a time for renewed advocacy efforts for improved care and support in our state systems, such as the earliest, most intensive interventions and prevention practices known to eliminate or minimize the chances this could ever happen again.
On behalf of the entire autism community in our state, we are deeply saddened by this tragic event and our thoughts and prayers are with each and every family suffering at this time.
Colleen M. Allen, Ph.D.
President and CEO, Autism Alliance of MI
Chair, MI Autism Council