Stephanie Holmes, M.A., Certified Autism Specialist
I want to begin this blog by firmly stating that Asperger’s or any other neurological or mental disorder is NOT a plausible excuse for the senseless murders of the innocent children and adults in Newtown, CT. As a mother, therapist, minister, and American citizen, my heart aches for the tragic loss of lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, as a mother of a teen with Asperger’s, my heart also aches for Nancy Lanza, victim and mother of the shooter.
As I read stories about Nancy, she is said to have been kind, compassionate, and very involved in the lives of her children. MSN.com reported, “Friends had met Lanza’s younger son, who stared down at the floor and didn’t speak when she brought him in. They knew he’d switched schools more than once and that she’d tried home schooling him. But while she occasionally expressed concern about his future during evenings at the bar, she never complained about anything at all.”
As the story of this massacre in Newtown unfolds, the diagnosis of Asperger’s of the shooter, Adam Lanza, keeps making the news. Some reporters are careful to say that most people with Asperger’s are not prone to such violent acts, but other stories draw comparison to the Colorado shooter, James Holmes, who is also thought to have Asperger’s. This raises an important question: Are individuals with Asperger’s prone to violent acts and murder? What is the relationship between Asperger’s and aggression/violence?
Understanding Autistic Aggression
An assistant professor of pediatrics and psychology at Ohio University, Eric Butter shares, “Aggression that we see in autism can best be described as disruptive and irritable behavior and is often consistent with the communication and social difficulties that are the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders. It is a very human experience that when you cannot explain how you are feeling, that you will then act out in frustration, anger, and aggression. But, it is not consistent with the diagnosis that you would plan and execute a crime like we saw here.”
Aggression that leads to this kind of planned, violent, criminal act is not mentioned as a symptom in the current DSM-IV-TR or the new DSM-V. Eric Butter points out that, while between 20-30% of persons with autism act out aggressively, the aggression is usually a reaction or impulsive outburst. The autistic individual may be quick to shout in anger, push, shove, or throw something, but methodical planning of murderous acts is not related to the spectrum.
As the mother of a child with Asperger’s, I am beginning to be concerned about prejudice toward persons with ASD because of the two massacres that occurred this year in a six-month period, wherein the shooter is believed to be on the autism spectrum. It is important to remember that having one disease or disorder does not preclude an individual from having other disorders that could significantly affect functioning. For example, a person with cancer could also have another medical issue, such as diabetes or heart disease. The same is important to remember with a person on the autism spectrum.
Distinguishing Between Autism and Mental Illness
Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a mental illness. This point cannot be made strongly enough. It is currently under the heading “pervasive development disorders,” described as a neurological glitch in the brain. A person on the spectrum usually has another diagnosis co-morbid with ADHD, such as OCD or ODD. Some individuals even have co-morbid bi-polar disorder or anti-social personality disorder.
Adam Lanza was described by former classmates as “painfully shy, socially awkward, and a little off.” These characteristics describe the Asperger’s individual. Yet, no one who knew him thought him to be capable of such a heinous crime. Whatever happened in Adam Lanza’s mind that horrible day was not a result simply of his Asperger’s.
We must be careful to protect those with ASD against prejudice that would suggest their ASD diagnosis pre-disposes them to violent crimes. According to Dr. Tony Attwood at an Asperger’s conference recently held in Atlanta, the ASD individual is actually more prone to a depression attack that could result in suicide than homicidal violence. Attwood said that these individuals can have a sudden “depression attack” that comes on quickly and strongly, as with a person who experiences a panic disorder. The depression attack can come with few warning signs; thus, cognitive therapy for Aspie teens is a pro-active tool to combat such depression.
Another point Dr. Attwood made was that there is cause for concern when an individual with Asperger’s develops a special interest in something like drugs, porn, or weapons. These are not common “special interests” among Aspie teens, but on rare occasions the Aspie can end up in trouble with the law when his or her special interest is something that is illegal. He spoke of his own son’s interest in drugs, which eventually led him to serve jail time. It happens, but this is not the norm.
Treatment Options for ASD
As I read more about Nancy Lanza, I can’t help but recognize a question that needs to be addressed more than gun control laws and the role of violent computer games: What is a parent to do when a teen or grown child with Asperger’s or mental illness acts out and has an aggressive meltdown? Nancy Lanza’s friends said she recently remarked she was afraid as Adam was getting older, she was “losing control of him.”
What options are out there to help a parent when a child is acting out? I remember when my own child was in elementary school and was prone to aggressive meltdowns that resulted in her being put in holds, time out closets, or held down by two or more adults. There was a time from 1st through 3rd grade when we were concerned for the safety of classmates if my daughter had a meltdown and threw her pencil or scissors out of frustration. There was a time when we were concerned about leaving my daughter and her younger sister unattended for fear that she may do something to harm her sister unintentionally in a moment of rage.
As a mother, I was forced to wrestle with thoughts like, can I rear this child on my own or does she need a specialized institution/program? I can feel Nancy’s pain as she must have faced similar concerns. It is being hypothesized that she was in the process of trying to get Adam committed, which could possibly have been a motive in the shooting. There were not and still are not many good options for those who are not wealthy enough to afford private or in-home care. In the education system, parents are given the choice of a specialized classroom for the severely autistic/mentally challenged or a specialized classroom that focuses on severe behaviors.
Neither of these are good options for the high-functioning ASD individual. These children usually have high intelligence and can learn. The challenge is finding the right environment to help them learn while protecting the safety of others. Our family’s local school system actually recommended that I put my daughter in an institutionalized setting and give up parental rights until she was “under control.” We did not have the funds to hire an in-home care specialist or a private facility. For us, like Nancy Lanza, one option was to home school and educate ourselves on all the available options and treatments.
What about when a behavior gets scary and out of control? Where do you turn? To have someone committed in a state institution, you have to prove that the person is homicidal or suicidal. Often with an individual on the spectrum, you do not get the suicidal clues that are a little more obvious with a neuro-typical teen. Besides, a state mental facility is not necessarily the best placement for ASD children.
Parents and counselors must consider if an institutionalized environment may model more severe behaviors that the child does not yet possess. Aspies are great imitators. Juvenile detention and mental hospitals can sometimes exacerbate the problem by introducing more severe behaviors than the original meltdowns.
Helping Families with an ASD Child
Did you know that because Asperger’s/ASD is not considered a medical disease or mental illness most insurance companies do not cover the various treatment options? Placement in private care or the hiring of an in-home specialist is usually not covered either. What is a parent to do when he or she feels a symptom or behavior is becoming more than they can deal with?
With ASD growing to 1 out of 88 children, and 1 out of 54 boys, what can be done to help families be pro-active and act preventively? There is a need for reform in mental health to equip families to help their teen or young adult who needs additional care and intervention.
As we process this tragedy, we must avoid making assumptions about persons with neurological issues or mental illness. We must also remember that there are many incidents of heinous acts committed by persons without Asperger’s, and that Adam Lanza had more severe issues to contend with than simply ASD. As our nation mourns the loss of these innocent lives, we must avoid developing prejudice against children and adolescents with Asperger’s/ASD. Instead, I challenge you to consider how you can support and help these individuals and their families.
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister and Licensed Christian Counselor with the Board of Examiners for Georgia Christian Counselors and Therapists and was formerly an LPC in North Carolina. She is a Board Certified Christian Counselor through the AACC’s Board of Christian Professional and Pastoral Counselors and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her oldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She began to change her focus to the world of IEPs and 504 educational plans and understand how to help special needs students in the classroom. In addition, she also helps families deal with their frustrations and challenges having a special needs child. Stephanie practices counseling at her home church, Calvary Atlanta, and advocates for special needs families.