Family Matters

Guilt by Association: Troubling Legacy of Sandy Hook May Be Backlash Against Children with Autism

Parents of children with autism confront misconceptions connecting the disorder with violence

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BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images

Two women visit a makeshift memorial near the entrance to the grounds of Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 18, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.

On the first day back to school after 20 first-graders and six adults died at a Connecticut elementary school, students at a Utah middle school gathered to discuss the massacre. A boy raised his hand. “The reason why this man shot little kids is because he has autism,” he said.

Tricia Nelson’s seventh-grade son was at the assembly. He’s shy, not the kind of child apt to speak in public, but his hand darted up in response. “Autism doesn’t make people shoot other people,” he said.

At 12, Nelson’s son is somewhat of an expert on autism. His younger brother, who is 10, has a severe form of the neurodevelopmental disorder. He doesn’t speak, and he attends a school for special needs. But he is not violent, said his older brother; he would not kill anyone.

Amid unconfirmed media reports that alleged gunman Adam Lanza, 20, had Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism marked by social awkwardness, autism experts are mobilizing to combat misconceptions about the condition. Parents are reaching out to school principals to ensure that students with autism aren’t being taunted. Advocates have issued statements disavowing any link between autism and premeditated aggression. And children — more often than not the siblings of kids who have autism — are standing up for others.

(MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children)

“He was in tears when he was telling me what happened,” says Nelson of her older son. She is an events organizer for Autism Speaks, the world’s largest autism research and advocacy group. “He said, ‘This boy is going to spread rumors.’”

After Nelson’s son spoke up, a teacher seconded his comments. She urged the students not to make assumptions. Yet as the country struggles to come to grips with the loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., people with autism are finding themselves the focus of misunderstanding and more than a little scrutiny.

Calls and e-mails to Autism Speaks’ hotline are up 130% since Friday’s shooting, as worried parents wonder how to channel their concern. In an effort to address possible backlash against people who have autism, this week Autism Speaks plans to release formal suggestions for how to educate school leaders, teachers and friends about the characteristics of children with the condition. “We’ve had a number of families say their children’s classmates have said, I hear the shooter has autism and doesn’t your brother or sister have autism?” says Peter Bell, Autism Speaks’ executive vice president for programs and services. “It seems like they’re wanting to put the blame squarely on the fact that the shooter may have had autism. This rush to put a label on the situation has caused significant harm already.”

(MORE: Using Brain-Activity Patterns to Identify Autism in Kids as Young as 2)

To dispel misunderstandings, developmental experts are trying to share accurate information about autism spectrum disorders. Poor social skills, trouble communicating and repetitive behaviors are all hallmarks of autism, but there’s no correlation with violence, says pediatric neuropsychologist Michelle Dunn, director of Montefiore Medical Center’s Neurology and Autism Center in the Bronx. “Even if [Lanza] had Asperger’s, it wouldn’t explain his behavior,” says Dunn. “In terms of premeditation and how horrific this act was, there is absolutely no association.”

People with autism can get easily frustrated, especially when their routines are disrupted. They may yell and scream, throw themselves on the floor or punch something. But it’s important to publicly reject any connection with planned violence, says Dunn.

But a widely circulated essay, I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother, by Liza Long, is making that message harder to convey. In the post, Long shared her complex relationship with her 13-year-old mentally ill son, who loves Harry Potter and stuffed animals but has also threatened her with a knife on countless occasions. As her story made the Internet rounds, autism advocates rushed to point out that autism is a brain-related developmental problem and not a mental illness.

(MORE: The Backlash Against ‘I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother’)

The former chairwoman of the Newtown school board has also expressed dismay, noting that some of the murdered teachers had worked with kids with special needs, including children with autism who attend Sandy Hook.

In a survey sent on Monday to 31,000 parents who are members of MyAutismTeam, a social network that serves as a Facebook for parents who have children with the condition, 30% indicated that they’re worried their children will be treated differently by teachers and other students in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. They’re also nervous that bullying — kids with autism are already disproportionately targeted — will increase. “To have this association to mass murder pinned to them is like putting another target on their heads,” says Christine Pasour, the mother of an 11-year-old son with Asperger’s.

High-functioning teens with autism are also perplexed. On Monday, Dunn got a call from a mother who wanted to make an appointment for her 17-year-old son, who has been getting questioned by classmates. “Some of these kids who know their diagnosis are asking the question, Could I turn out to be violent too?” says Dunn. “He is very worried about himself.”

On message boards and social networks, parents are offering strategies for confronting the uncertainty. Discussing autistic kids’ quirky or unusual behavior candidly with school leaders and classmates can help, they suggest. Pasour posted on MyAutismTeam that she’d read “some horrible, horrible” comments on various news sites about Lanza’s reported Asperger’s diagnosis. “Keep in mind that this may be the first time many Americans will even hear about Asperger’s … This has the potential of creating horrible bullying situations for our kids.”

Her son has been home sick with the flu, but when he returns to school on Wednesday, Pasour, from Dallas, N.C., plans to ask his principal and teachers to “keep their ear to the ground” to make sure no one is saying anything inappropriate. It comes down to education, says Pasour. “Children have an amazing ability to grow and to learn and to be empathetic,” she says. “Either they learn ignorance and hate or they learn love and compassion.”

MORE: Can a Baby’s Cry Be a Clue to Autism?

120 comments
MaryETormey
MaryETormey

Autism Speaks is a hate group, that is trying to collects the brains of Autistic people. The gunman or gunmen passed a class of 25 1st graders for 2 classes of 15 1st graders. The media reported 30 people killed, but only 27 where killed. The officers of the seen counted 7 pairs of eyes. Why did the media believe 30 people had been killed? Autism Speaks is collecting money in the names of people who have been killed. 

ericjor22
ericjor22

http://onlyifyoulistenautismspeaks.blogspot.com/


PEOPLE PLEASE READ THIS. You cannot understand how many of us there are in misery. You are on the outside looking in. When you are driven to suicide sometimes you take those who drove you there down with you. Its not those he killed that really suffered. Its their families who are in misery. Read my blog post. Its my first. It will help you understand. If you don't want to repeat the past, learn from history.

nooogetta
nooogetta

So let’s talk about bullying, then. According to the book ‘Bullying in North American Schools’, it is the case that children with autism spectrum disorders are targeted by bullies more than any other group. But I don’t understand the title of this story. If Lanza was in fact diagnosed with autism and if bullying was a factor, then wouldn’t the Sandy Hook legacy be a backlash BY the child with autism and against the ‘normal’ children?
There was a child that I knew, thought to be on the spectrum but never officially diagnosed, who was harassed in middle school by boys who would jump out from behind doorways to scream, inches from her face, “SAY SOMETHING!”. It wasn’t the boys who were steered to counseling but rather it was her. She was told by a paid expert with her HMO that she should “ignore them and they’ll stop”. She did ignore them; they didn’t stop. I thought I read that Adam Lanza had been in a program for children at risk for bullying. It’s been my experience that in the schools, the quiet children are given a mental diagnosis, but the bullies are ignored. This makes no sense to me. It seems to me that it should perhaps be the other way around.
Please don’t construe anything I’ve said to mean that I am trying to make excuses for what Lanza did.

_BatWings_
_BatWings_

@JenCcampbell @TIMEHealthland @MyAutismTeam.. well.. My 18 year old with Autism is prone to aggression and so are my students with Autism.

ttsimplejack
ttsimplejack

Autistics have gaping holes in their DNA, and are therefore mutants. One cannot expect "normal" human behavior from a being that is indeed subhuman. Enough of the politically correct nonsense with mainstreaming Autistic kids in our schools. The inevitable bullying of these Autistic youths is a recipe for breeding more Adam Lanzas. Institute aggressive mental health screenings, bring back psychiatric facilities that would have kept an Adam Lanza locked up years ago, and fund the Autism research necessary to detect the genetic defects during pregnancy. (Down Syndrome prenatal screening is widely accepted, is it not?) Some form of Eugenics must be introduced to combat the Autism epidemic. Darwinism and natural selection no longer apply to human reproduction. Medicating a person with genetic deficiencies is a band-aid fix. We are weakening the human gene pool by normalizing Autistic spectrum individuals, which allows them to better fit in with society, and increases their odds of reproduction.

light_and_lit
light_and_lit

@canucksautism #toxicinterference i expect this organization supports environmental activism? ITS IN THE WATER #happyholidays #IdleNoMore

AnthonyCohutt
AnthonyCohutt

This is a public perception emergency! If there is anyone out there with TV Network connections, please urge them to do a segment on 60 Minutes or one of the other high profile news magazine shows to make it clear that there is absolutely no connection between autism and Aspergers and this type of horrific behavior. Failure to do so will place millions of innocent and already vulnerable children who are coping with these challenges in a very precarious and dangerous position. Much of the harm has already been done and is irreversible, but the most effective way, by far, to mitigate the damage is through a very high profile television program. Please hurry, time is of the essence!

pendragon05
pendragon05

First of all, autism (and aspergers) is way overdiagnosed.

I personally know people who use the autism excuse for their child's bad behaviour.

Discipline will eliminate the autism problem.

JanisL.Korkos
JanisL.Korkos

I hope with all my heart that autistic kids are not taunted do this horrible happening.  My son was taunted way back this even happened or Bully word became popular.  I want to hear who treated this person and if he was on meds.  Concerned Mother for all AUTISTIC Children & adults

lemans407
lemans407

This sure hasn't come to pass.  So far the media backlash in this case has been against the second amendment.  The backlash shouldn't be against autism or our natural rights, it should be against the dangerous drugs that are linked to 90% of these random attacks.  If the media actually gave a shit about these kids they should attack big pharma, not our rights, but they don't really care about kids, they care about destroying the second amendment.

KarenFox
KarenFox

As a Mom with a 14 year old Son, who is on "the Spectrum", I hope and pray that people do not place the blame for this horrific tragedy on Autism.

My Son is a very sweet young man, with deep empathy for any and all of those that have been in any way hurt by others.

I will continue to be his strongest advocate, and  teach the world that our special loved ones, that just happen to be "Autistic" are NOT monsters, and do NOT plan these horrific tragedies.

I will also continue to be the "Mother Bear", with my claws fully exposed, in a protective response, in protection of my Son.

PLEASE, PEOPLE, educate yourself on Autism, before you blame this on Autism.

Thanks for reading this.

BjornTalvi
BjornTalvi

@nooogetta - I agree sir, I have autism and even though I was never bullied (I was mostly ignored) I know someone else with autism (who's a good friend from the university up here in Fairbanks) who has had the experience of being bullied. So your logic is sound...

AndrewKilroy
AndrewKilroy

@_BatWings_ Stop trying to use your son to call us mass murderers. It's sickening.

BjornTalvi
BjornTalvi

@_BatWings_ - Let me offer you a suggestion as a young adult with autism, I was ignored a lot as a kid and then put on medication because of being ignored... why don't you try to have some empathy to have some empathy and try to actually talk to them- that's better than medication actually opening a dialogue rather than putting a child on a terrible regime of many, many medications (which are essentially legalized versions of illegal drugs)...

TiffanyJeanGreer
TiffanyJeanGreer

@ttsimplejack I am a 21 year old woman with Asperger's Syndrome, I also have healthy relationships, wonderful family and friends, a serious relationship with a wonderful man also on the spectrum, a learner's permit, a new year's resolution to get my driver's license find a job and return to school for a degree in culinary arts, don't you feel foolish?

radiohays
radiohays

@ttsimplejack spoken as a true Nazi. Perhaps we should irradicate ignorant people who spread hate like yourself. We should lock you up for your dangerous propoganda. Simple yes not a Jack at all more like a moron. You make the autistic genius' look more intelligent. Eisntien was autistic and Bill Gates you bonehead. Get alife and pick on someone that isnt handicapped.

Ulumur
Ulumur

So? White people are mutants.

kindwordindeed
kindwordindeed

Apparently morons have gaping holes in the core of their soul,  Maybe it's  just big-mouthed idiots.  Perhaps a trip to mass would help?  maybe a prayer on your part?  God help you

ssimon311
ssimon311

@ttsimplejack wow, are you for real? First off, how do you know people with autism have, what was it you said, "gaping" holes in their DNA? Please describe these holes. Who are you tosay they are sub-human? Autism is a physical issue, many people on the spectrum have allergies, buildups of toxins (which they cannotbe blamed for, rather our environment and the "normal" people that have created it). Do you think all people with cancer are sub-human and should be pooled together and put in one place? Do you blame them for having cancer? I'm pretty sure you don't.

so what I'm understanding is that we should accept the bullying on these children, and ignore that being a problem, but put it on the responsibility of the people with autism. yeah ,that really make sense. why should we accept bullying is being in evitable? is in bullying violent behavior as well? Why should bullies be excused for their behavior?

As far as your comment about Darwinism and the gene pool, I don't even know what to say. It's disgusting, and inhumane how to think the way YOU are thinking. God willing you will never have a child with autism because who knows what will happen with that poor child. its people like you that need to be eliminated from the gene pool you're extremely ignorant, and a moron for posting this comment by the way. You are poisoning the public with your stupidity.

Nicoleafty
Nicoleafty

@ttsimplejack, be ashamed of yourself. Please do some real research on the autistic spectrum disorder, including meeting some actual people with autism. They are bright, and are very loving, if you give them a real chance. My nephew is autistic, as well as one of my best friends. They may not act or communicate in the same way that we do, but they love their families and friends, like we all do. Banishing them from society would be a real loss to the rest of us. People with autism have a lot to offer, and can really teach us a lot, if we would pay attention. Please seek help.

SomewhereOverTheRainbow
SomewhereOverTheRainbow

Wow severe and narrow minded.

A perfect genetic species  Nazi comment. Gas them if they dont fit your idea

Thinking of the Roman Greek era when they threw babies in the trash heap who were imperfect and  engaged in  blood sport

Your comment is not helpful, offensive and subhuman

Ms_Dhillon
Ms_Dhillon

@AnthonyCohutt You have to understand that people with Autism have depersonalization. It is wrong for you to discredit those of us with Autism that know these things can happen, so your parading, please.

momofautisticboy
momofautisticboy

@pendragon05 i'm curious...are you a doctor or a medical professional or just an ignorant fool? i would assume the latter.  

Nicoleafty
Nicoleafty

@pendragon05 You are both wrong.  If you had any experience with autistic children, you would know better.

ttsimplejack
ttsimplejack

@pendragon05 I agree with you that Autism is being diagnosed too often. Plenty of behavioral issues are simply the result of poor parenting. But, have you noticed how few mentally retarded children there are now? Certainly we must be making progress in the medical community...Or do we now sugarcoat the genetic deficiencies of certain children for parents, with a more friendly "PDD-NOS" or similar Autistic spectrum diagnosis?

GUESTAnon
GUESTAnon

@lemans407 I am not sure what you mean by this hasn't come to pass. It most certainly has. I have talked to several parents and hear more examples of bullying daily.

JanisL.Korkos
JanisL.Korkos

@lemans407 Some autisstic kids need meds to live just like diabetes.  All can not be on the glutton free diet.  My kid throws up when I eat certain foods.............never had meat in his life and only eats certain FOODS.  You can't force any kid to eat. Years ago when they said Ritilin was bad,,,,,,I have news for you, this is how he learned to read by being on this med.  His dr.  yearsSidney Freidman CHOP said it was good for him.  This man was only a teacher at University of PENN for 50 years.  When he passed on before he did he wrote each patient and parent a letter. My son had heart surgery at age 6,  I have lived with autistm for 23 years

ttsimplejack
ttsimplejack

@KarenFox As someone with three healthy children age 5 and under, I have already witnessed one son nearly stabbed in eye with a fork by a PDD-NOS Autistic child. My children have also endured bites and other physical unprovoked attacks from Fragile X Autistic children, that are NOT part of the usual rough housing activities with healthy children. Parents like you are selfish in forcing the mainstreaming of your unstable offspring into environments that have innocent children present. Your "Mother Bear" maternal instincts cloud your logic, just as a Nancy Lanza, who eventually was shot multiple times in the face by her "sweet young man". Please understand that many of us do have empathy for your situation, but it was a risk that you took by reproducing. Don't force your burdens on society, and don't expect those of us with our own children and legacies to not be threatened by the mentally unstable in our midst.

ttsimplejack
ttsimplejack

@JanisL.Korkos You are a selfish simpleton, and your logic is clouded by emotion and maternal instinct. Your failure to produce a healthy child should not be society's burden.

ttsimplejack
ttsimplejack

Well, I am 50% Italian, and the other 50% is German, so maybe you are onto something there Dorothy ;)  I never mentioned killing existing beings walking this planet, but some measure should be taken to prevent defective offspring from being born in the first place.  Big Pharma loves the likes of you...medicate and treat indefinitely, instead of addressing the root cause.  Continue to insist on regulation and better quality control in almost every aspect of your life, but ignore the genetic health of your species...brilliant

epower
epower

@Ms_Dhillon @AnthonyCohutt Depersonaliztion is a common response among people who experience overwhelming events in early childhood--not just abuse--when there is minimal support or connection for recovery from their caregivers. For any child who has grown up homeless, in chronic stress, during war time, in combat, with chronic medical conditions or in recovery from an accident, this form of dissociation is an ordinary and effective coping mechanism. Not a disease or a disorder unless it gets in our way, or we are unable to participate in our environments responsibly.  If I can't soothe myself somehow, thankfully I can "step back."  

BjornTalvi
BjornTalvi

@Ms_Dhillon @AnthonyCohutt - That's a good assessment, I myself have Aspergers syndrome/ high-functioning autism and I suffer from depersonalization due to the fact that my parents prefer not to talk to me but put me on medications instead.

pendragon05
pendragon05

@momofautisticboy I am someone who has done extensive research and written upon the subject of autism. And the facts are there: autism is being overdiagnosed much the same way ADD/ADHD was back in the 1990's. As for Aspergers, why do you think the APA recently removed it from its list of mental illnesses? You know, if the APA decided to remove autism from its lists too then you'd be in trouble because you would not be able to receive money from the state to help "aid" your kids.

AndrewKilroy
AndrewKilroy

@ttsimplejack Or maybe it's that the real danger, sociopaths who dissolve human bonds, push eugenics and pervert the system, are the only retards we should be afraid of

epower
epower

@ttsimplejack Hmmm... Nancy Lanza bore no responsibility for having multiple weapons without trigger locks in place and the keys far away from a child who knew she was considering insitutionalizing him and giving the courts charge of his finances?  Every responsible gun owner knows they are the ones most likely to be shot with their weapons, and that they--not their children, adult or otherwise--are responsible for every bullet they own.  Seems like her logic may have been as clouded as her son's.  Both paid the price.  Mental instability takes a lot of forms.

BjornTalvi
BjornTalvi

@ttsimplejack - aren't ye the same fool who advocates eugenics? Please try to find some empathy like Gandhi did...

timdo190
timdo190

@ttsimplejack :):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):)

We dont need to get rid of guns more than we need to get rid of those unstable enough to live in society.

AndrewKilroy
AndrewKilroy

@ttsimplejack Killing people who mainly aren't disabled at all in the name of public service. Say, I guess it's people like you who made Autism such a bad thing in the first place. You want the world to only be populated by sick psychopaths like yourself.

ssimon311
ssimon311

@ttsimplejack do us all a favor and please do not reproduce. We don't need copies of your spawn walking the Earth. If you already have, we're all f@$ked.

AndrewKilroy
AndrewKilroy

@ttsimplejack It's amazing how those Germans and Italians with their perfectionism managed to get crushed by those Russians, Brits and Americans who never used the same scale of that falsehood "eugenics".

 Funny how compassion seems to be the most important trait of humanity, always sticking in the eye of genocidal maniacs like yourself. I would not leave the genetic health to a simpleton psychopath like you who would make humanity a bunch of idiotic inbreds. You want to make humanity stronger but try to kill off its most promising shoot and artificially interfere with natural selection, which still continues to work this day but against the outdated, useless, parasitic and weakening elements of humanity, such as psychopaths.

By the way. No indication Lanza wasn't a sociopath having a psychotic rage yet. But no confirmation he was Autistic beyond hearsay.

momofautisticboy
momofautisticboy

I had a whole response typed for you, but instead I am going to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope you find some compassion and sense in 2013. There is no point in going back and forth with someone as ignorant intolerant as you.