There are numerous reports coming out that Adam Lanza, the man who killed 20 children and 6 adults in Newton, CT, had autism or Asperger syndrome. Some are kindly spelling it correctly while others are using the improper “Aspergers.”
Let’s keep in mind that these are the same “Dewey Beats Truman”, 24 hour news cycle reporters who so far in this story have falsely reported that Lanza’s mother was a teacher at the school and Lanza’s brother committed the crime or was an accomplice.
No one has said for certain that Lanza had Asperger or any other diagnosis.
Lanza, who friends and officials said suffered from Asperger’s syndrome or a personality disorder, had a tortured mind.
So, unspecified “officials” have said he had “Asperger or a personality disorder.” That’s a general statement and covers a wide range of things.
1) “Personality Disorder” is, as I understand it, the preferred term for sociopathy/psychopathy, though a friend pointed out there are personality disorders other than sociopathy and psychopathy. Technically, a personality disorder is not a mental illness, because a person with a personality disorder understands reality.
2) Lanza is described as been sullen and not speaking much (most of the media speculation comes from people who claimed to have known him). There very distinguishing trait of Asperger syndrome from other Autistic Spectrum Disorders is that Aspie’s are socially outgoing but don’t understand social cues. The classic person with Asperger is the guy who comes up to you and talks incessantly about his favorite book or tv show, or random trivia, and doesn’t really care if you’re listening. Even a more strictly autistic person will come up and present you with some random piece of information–which is hard to understand–then walk away, though being sullen and withdrawn is more of a trait of classic autism than Asperger.
3) Lanza is dead, so there’s no way of knowing what was going through his mind, but the nature of his act of violence tells me it was either the cold-hearted work of a sociopath or the paranoid insanity of a schizophrenic. An autistic can be violent, but autistic violence is a response to unpleasant stimuli. An autistic might have shot his mother and himself, but I don’t see an autistic going out of his way to go to a public place like a school and killing random people like this. If Lanza had autism, and even if he’d been set off to some extreme form of violence by a family situation, it would have ended there with his suicide or shutting down or something.
I have three children now diagnosed as severely autistic, and all four of my children, when I plug their behavior into the Baron-Cohen Autism Quotient test (designed to study the notion of a “spectrum”), score in the mid-30s (clinically significant to seek a diagnosis, and because of this I’ve spent a lot of time among support groups and such the past few years, seeing other children and adults with autistic spectrum disorders. They show some strange behaviors, and all four have bad tempers, and they can sometimes be violent, but it’s a fight-or-flight kind of thing, not a cold, calculated, go out and seek violence kind of thing. If Lanza had shot his mother and then turned the gun on himself, and people said, “He probably had autism,” I wouldn’t dispute it, though I’d leave the final say to those who had knowledge of the situation.
However, going to a public place like a school, and killing a bunch of strangers? An autistic would be terrified to do that. The only way an autistic would commit such an act was if he were *in* the school, *being* teased by bullies or something and lashed out at that moment against them.
I don’t see either the descriptions of his behavior given in interviews or especially the act he committed being consistent with Autism–more likely it sounds like schizophrenia or sociopathy, but anything more specific could only be diagnosed by whatever professionals may have been treating him, if any.
I just keep thinking of a video I was shown in 6th grade at an Evangelical school I attended, where a man was telling his conversion story, and he talked about how he chose at one point in his teen years to serve Satan, so he set out to intentionally break every Commandment. As difficult as it may be to accept, some people really do consciously choose evil, and barring further evidence about Lanza’s influences or psychological health, I have to say this is the case. Ethically, we call such individuals amoral. Psychologically, such individuals are called sociopaths.
Please, no matter what you think of my political or religious views, take this message seriously. There is way too much misinformation about mental health issues as it is, including again that there are many conditions listed in the DSM that do not constitute “Mental illness” strictly speaking, and that “mental illness” and “legal insanity” are two different issues as well. We don’t need a witch hunt. I have more to say about that in another post, but every time something like this happens, people seek a witch hunt. Sometimes, it’s guns, or movies, or video games, or whatever, but this time it seems to be shaping up to be about learning disabilities, mental health, developmental and personality disorders–or about the failures of the mental health professionals to properly treat them (i.e., I’m seeing a lot of posts about the potentially dangerous side effects of different medications).
It annoys me when people “heart attack” as a catch all for any of the various things that can go wrong with the heart, and it annoys me when people lump together all the various things that can go wrong with the mind: that merely being treated by a mental health professional makes one somehow inferior. The other day, rehashing the Fr. Corapi debate on Facebook, I said that I think both he and his alleged accuser have mental health problems. My interlocutor suggested I was besmirching Corapi’s good name by suggesting he had mental health problems. I said, “How can that be when he built his ministry on talking about how he had mental health problems?” Why does it do harm to someone’s good name to say that person has mental or physical health problems? That’s just silly.
Proper diagnosis of disorders of the mind can be challenging and complicated, but it’s crucial. Proper treatment of the proper disorders is also crucial because giving the wrong drug to a person can have disastrous results–even a seemingly unrelated medication. So the more we learn, the more we can both properly see things, know how to work with people, and not expect behavior from one person because we assume all “mentally ill” (itself a misnomer) people act the same way.
People like to talk about “awareness.” They wear ribbons. They forward memes in emails and on social networking site to say, “share this if you want to raise awareness of X,” but awareness doesn’t just mean, “Hey, there’s something called Autism/Asperger/Schizophrenia/Psychopathy/Bipolar/Diabetes/Cancer/Heart Disease/Marfan syndrome! Let’s be aware it exists.” Awareness means knowing what that condition entails and how to deal with it.
A big part of dealing with someone with a mental health problem is knowing what it entails and knowing how to properly respond to such a person. You discipline an autistic child differently from an ADHD child and differently from a neurotypical child (if there is such an entity).
Let’s not have a witch hunt. I don’t want my children growing up with people saying, “Hey! You’re autistic! Wasn’t that guy who killed those kids in Connecticut autistic? Are you like him?”