Every time I hear of yet another ‘mass shooting’, my heart misses a beat and I hold my breath waiting for the words that I know will often follow.
“Carried out by a killer who was a loner; isolated; bullied, etc., etc.” Then followed by the words I dread but I just know are next…“and diagnosed with a ‘condition’; a ‘disease’; or ‘suffers from a form of Autism.” It is then I exhale and my heart sinks.
Over the past few days, many people have been trying to piece together why 20 year old Adam Lanza carried out the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. A number of those are reporting that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, perhaps using the diagnosis as a way to justify his actions. However, it is also clear this young man had numerous mental health issues, which in turn must have impacted on his ability to deal with a confusing world.
First of all, let’s make one thing very clear. Asperger’s syndrome is not a mental health issue. It is a complex neurological difference where those diagnosed process information differently. It is not a disease nor do people suffer from it. It is true that some people with a mental illness can have Asperger’s or Autism, as they can also have ADD, Schizophrenia, Depression, ODD or numerous other conditions –but Asperger’s Syndrome and mental illness do not go hand in hand. They have nothing to do with each other!
My 27 year old son, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in 1997 when he was 12 years old is now a University graduate and in a loving relationship. He is understandably upset by the press and the public’s attempt to link Autism Spectrum in any way with the shooting.
He said “We just get to a place where those of us with Asperger’s are beginning to be understood, then something like this happens and I wonder if people will judge and make assumptions about me?”
“I can understand how he might have lost his temper; I can understand how frustrated he could get if he was sad or angry because his parents were separated; and I can even understand that he may have lashed out at his mother because she didn’t understand that he was sad or angry about something. I can understand that thinking. What I can’t understand is why he would take a gun and do such a terrible thing, not only to his mother but also to innocent people and little children. That is not how people with Asperger’s think!”
If in fact Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s or not, the reason he picked up three guns, including one semi-automatic assault weapon, killed his mother and then drove to the school and murdered innocent women and precious little ones aged only 6 and 7 years old, had absolutely nothing to do with the diagnosis.
I know many parents of a child on the autism spectrum lie in bed at night worrying about their child’s future… Will they graduate from school? Will they get a job? Will they get married and have children? Will they one day snap and do something unbelievably terrible? I can reassure you that no, your ASD child will not one day pick up a gun and do something so terrible…Why? Because that is not how people with Asperger’s think.
There are no random thoughts in the mind of a person on the Autism spectrum. Every single action and behavior has a reason behind it. If our AS child is upset, angry, frustrated or stressed it is our role as parents and teachers to help them to understand their frustration and then help them to create strategies to deal with those issues. Once they learn that strategy, and become comfortable with it, they will use that strategy over and over again when needed.
More importantly, the environment a person living with Asperger’s grows up in has a major impact on their decisions, their anxiety and stress levels and the choices they make in life. They usually have a very high code of ethics; do not break rules; have a heightened sense of compassion and empathy and are also more likely to be the victims of violence, not the perpetrators.
What happened in Connecticut was brought about by a series of incidents that together have resulted in the actions of a very mentally ill young man. Personally, I am having a great deal of difficulty coming to terms as to why any mother would have a semi-automatic assault rifle in her home, let alone the amount of ammunition stock piled. Just the thought of it makes me feel so sad. Perhaps he thought using a gun to solve problems, when life didn’t make sense, was perfectly normal – because in his world it was?
What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary school is just so incredibly heartbreaking and confusing, I am not sure we will ever know all the reasons why Adam Lanza carried out this most horrendous act. However, I am 100% sure of one thing – being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome is not one of those reasons.
Sally Thibault, Speaker & Author
Aspergers Parenting Specialist