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?

122 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.

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?

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

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.

AmberHazor
AmberHazor

There is NEVER an excuse or a reason good enough to justify backlash against children. Any children. Mental disease is just like any other disease, it is like a cancer of the mind. We have to learn how to be a proactive, compassionate, effective society. We all jump to point fingers and give these disgusting acts of terror a reason for happening. The reason is deep, the reason is not just one thing or one type. We must work together to find a way to help all sick individuals, in addition to the multitude of others things that must happen to protect our future from being massacred the way far too many innocent lives have already. In loving memory of all the beautiful Sandy Hook Children and Heroes. 

onit25
onit25

@CinLorena yeah forward please

VanessaOrtiz
VanessaOrtiz

I am grateful you wrote an article that has the potential to educate so many people about how Autism does not equal violence.  My only critique is that I wish you would have interviewed people who are Autistic to provide the anecdotes.  You reference Autism Speaks, an organization that many in the Autism community shun because its Board is not made up of people on the spectrum, rather people who "think" they know what is best for an entire other group of people.  You refer to a young man as a "somewhat expert" on Autism because his brother lives with the condition.  Why is it more important for us to know he stood up for his brother than to find a similar story where someone with Autism advocates for him or herself? I'm Neurotypical, but I have family members on the spectrum.  I actively seek out those in the Autism community because they are the true experts to learn from.  Surely, as a reporter, you could have gone a little deeper, and invited someone from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network to provide insight.  Their tagline is "Nothing About Us Without Us" and I hope in the future you seek out the better sources for an article this important.

AndrewKilroy
AndrewKilroy

Yesterday it was the Jews and 'blood libel'

Today it is the Autistics and mass murder

I am afraid for my people. And yet no confirmation Lanza was diagnosed at all.

PhilGluyas
PhilGluyas

Excellent article. And this doesn't just affect the kids, even though there are important. It affects us adults as well. I fired back at one moron who made this connection and went right ahead and blamed the Autistic Self Advocacy Network for the tragedy, simply because ASAN (and myself) know that the Autistic Spectrum can't be cured. He quickly accused me of being violent - yes I'm Asperger's/Autistic (it'll be the same thing and rightly so under the DSM-V). Then he followed up with his next entry calling all of us on the Spectrum potential "psycho killers"!! Boy I HATE Freedom of Speech sometimes because that's the sort of thing that has to be gagged!!

SomewhereOverTheRainbow
SomewhereOverTheRainbow

What is sad is I see a person, the mother who took on an impossible task of caring for this boy alone in her home. Of course we all want to keep our loved ones at home but some situations are too much for one to bear within the home.

alternatesteve2
alternatesteve2

I'm not autistic myself(though I was originally MISdiagnosed as such when I was a little kid. It's a really long story.), but I've known people who are, and most of them are decent people; they would never seriously think about killing random people like Adam Lanza. 

What kinda worries me, is what could happen if a kid with ADD blows up his neighbor's car or shoots up a school....that's a condition I DO have and I wouldn't want to be automatically associated with such just because I shared the same challenges with said person. So please, don't scapegoat....... 

SomewhereOverTheRainbow
SomewhereOverTheRainbow

Look brain disorders are complicated. !

 It is possible to have a cluster or mixed diagnosis. For example bipolar and autism behavior./SOME people have more than one thing going on.

 It is possible he was not correctly diagnosed.

Of couse we dont know all the detail. Autism is more and more being linked toschizophrenia shareing some of the same mutated genes. It is commom forthere to be  one sibling with bipolar and the other with autism. OR bothdisorders run in the family.

I am going out on a limb here but what if this introverted shy withdrawn young man recently went on a new med or off a med?/Meds cancause negative side effects  about 20%  of the time namely they will trigger agresion, trigger mania or wreck havoc with a persons thoughts and behavior..

TigerJily13
TigerJily13

@TIMEHealthland @brochman Stop #scapegoating! People need to stop blaming the innocent/not talk about matters they are ignorant about.

TigerJily13
TigerJily13

@TIMEHealthland @brochman stop #scapegoating! People need to stop blaming the innocent/not talk about matters they are ignorant about.

ljalexander777
ljalexander777

The biggest tragedy going on is associating Asperger with the murder. 99.9999% of all the murders in the last century have been related to causes that have nothing to do with Asperger. Asperger  in fact is irrelevant. Why?  Asperger individuals may be the least like members of society to be involved in any violent act. Reasons: Physical disability. Most Aspies are scared with physical disabilities in addition to Asperger. The physical precision needed for most acts of violence is impossible. Almost all individuals in Autistic spectrum do no like to be touched or touch others. Many Asperger individuals would freak out to be involved in a situation that might present germs. OCD is very common among Aspies. Almost are individuals on the Autistic spectrum become frantic from loud noises. One shot would be enough to halt the next bullet from being fired. 

Please take a look at a great book on the subject of Asperger.

IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE  

By Jacob Alexander     

 The book is available at amazon.com

karynmillar
karynmillar

@ArevaMartin You took the words right out of my mouth!

ArevaMartin
ArevaMartin

@CarlaYarbro @time @timehealthland thanks my friend! Hope you got invite for Sunday 5 pm.

Guywithanantfarm
Guywithanantfarm

Shame on EVERY media outlet that has a story mentioning Autism and this monsters actions in the same story.  As a parent it is hard enough to have people look at your child sideways or keep their own child from playing with yours the second they hear the word Autism simply because they don’t understand what it means.  Now the media is adding even more ignorant prejudice to those who have a hard enough time as it is with what the rest of the world does not understand.  The truth is that some of the world’s brightest minds and most influential people are on the Autism spectrum yet no one ever mentions this among their accomplishments.  Some of these great minds have helped create technology that we use every day.  Some have given us art and music that have enhanced our lives.  Some have even becomegreat leaders and helped forge nations.  It is true that an Autistic person may think, see or hear things different than you but that’s the beauty of people… we are not all the same.  Perhaps if there is any “link” to be made here it is that nothing good can ever come from treating a child like they are unwanted or unworthy simply because they are different.  Maybe if we put aside our prejudice misconceptions based on ignorance and simply show all children love the way we should we wouldn’t have to hear about so many monsters in the world…

elleac
elleac

@TIME @timehealthland And who's fault is that?! Instead of waiting for genuine motive, media like YOU keep insisting on making it the answer

Guywithanantfarm
Guywithanantfarm

1 in 88 children now have to worry about violent attacks against them because media outlets wanted more ratings!?!  Guess they weren't making enough off the pounds of flesh tragically taken already that they need one from ever Autistic child and their families too?  Absolutely Disgusting!!!

melissamakela
melissamakela

im  a mother of a 21 year old serve autistic boy......still in diapers.....still needs one on one.....this is sooo heartbreaking that this is thrown out there......my son is the most sweetest kid.....sure he can have an outbreak.......but that is in the "NOW"...maybe last a couple minutes...and over.....he has never hit me.....he has hit and scratched workers and teachers...and aides.....but my son has a dedicated team.....the highschool he went to....the kids would walk down the hall and high five him.....at walmart...the cashiers know him...im in a small community in northern MN......im an sooooo lucky he has had such great people in his life.....put i tell you right know....and i have been a professional in autism over 21 years....cause of my son.....there is no way my son could plot out a act like this...pick up a gun....and walk into a school and shoot....he just couldnt.....im thinking kids with mild autism or aspergers are the same......and it is not the gun that kills people it is the people....and there are lots of people that need help......go check themselves into a hospital....put under 24-72 hrs kicked out with a bottle of pills and lets hope they take them......we need more mental health providers....the gov needs to take of these people.....we need to take care of them....GOD help those families.....and im thankful for you Matthew.......you are the best part of my life...XOXOXOXOX

VerbalOrchid
VerbalOrchid

I have Asperger's. So does my 6 year old daughter. So I've got double strikes against me for being 1) a single parent with Asperger's who is 2) raising as Aspergirl herself...? I call BS, sorry. It is absolutely possible and reasonable to expect that an Aspie, male or female, can be educated and raised to be a responsible adult, parent, intelligent, and know right from wrong. My daughter certainly will, because *I* will teach her, as my Neurotypical mother taught me. Now tell me those children died just because Adam Lanza had AS. The cycle of perpetuating generations of ignorance needs to end - NOW. Not tomorrow, Not next year, NOW. It starts with education, and each individual stepping up and remembering that we have a human soul, and capacity for great compassion. STOP pawning them off with medication that A) doesn't always work, and B) can make situations worse simply by virtue of a wrong diagnosis.

Research, education, and awareness are all critical to avoid and overcome the stigma of ANY of the disorders on the Autism SPECTRUM. I think a lot of people forget that. It's not just Asperger's, or classic Autism. There are many others that fall under the umbrella name. 

cheetahchottahs
cheetahchottahs

Schools need to start running assembles to educate students about autism. And they need to be run by self-advocates, not parents or siblings. That is the only way to show students that autistics have a community out there, and they do speak for themselves. The more autistics themselves speak up against bullying, the more others will actually start to respect them rather than pity them, or fear them.There is no doubt that people on the spectrum are more likely to be lonely and desperate than NTs, and desperate people are more likely to turn to crime. That is why we see more Blacks committing crimes. Being black, or being autistic does not predispose people to murder others. Yet having a personality disorder on top of it increases the likelihood for emotions to snap.

cheetahchottahs
cheetahchottahs

Schools need to start running assembles to educate students about autism. And they need to be run by self-advocates, not parents or siblings. That is the only way to show students that autistics have a community out there, and they do speak for themselves. The more autistics themselves speak up against bullying, the more others will actually start to respect them rather than pity them.There is no doubt that people on the spectrum are more likely to be lonely and desperate than NTs, and desperate people are more likely to turn to crime. That is why we see more Blacks committing crimes. Being black, or being autistic does not predispose people to murder others. Yet having a personality disorder on top of it increases the likelihood for emotions to snap.

lisamowmow
lisamowmow

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Autistic kids throw tantrums, this was a planned calculated murder. This was not autistic behavior.

nickdangerca
nickdangerca

@TIMEHealthland @TIME Only if the NRA spins it their way

RuthDroza
RuthDroza

@TIME it isn't fair to generalize.You can't make guns easily available n then nt Xpect any disaster!Play with fire and you will get burnt!

bencas4
bencas4

@TIME @TIMEHealthland. Autism is not associated with violence and certainly not a planned event like Sandy Hook. People need to get real!

ResilienCSafety
ResilienCSafety

@TIME @TIMEHealthland We definitely agree. And the defining of Autism/Aspergers as mental health issues has been a huge misstep made as well

AspieMom02
AspieMom02

To KC, 

I have a 7 yr old with Asperger's and I do NOT think that his mother created a "weapon" by allowing guns, video games and watching violence. My son was not allowed to play any video games that weren't educational until he was 6 and he was very aggressive physically at times, usually when he was having a hard time regulating anger/anxiety emotions.  Should the mother have had numerous guns unlocked - NO - but I don't think in her wildest nightmares  she would have thought he would do something like this. It saddens me that he wasn't able to receive the right coping skills and my prayer for my son is that as an adult should he ever encounter a situation that causes severe anger or anxiety he will reach for a coping skill instead of a weapon.  Having never walked a day in an AspieMom's shoes you just don't know what she was dealing with and have no right to condemn her.

toni_deshane
toni_deshane

@TIME unless we can go back in time...no one will ever know

toni_deshane
toni_deshane

@TIME Autism or not, the real problem is nobody truly knows why he did what he did. Theories are not answers!

functionalabc
functionalabc

@TIME @TIMEHealthland ohhh ihope not that would be travesty know i have no experiance in this