December 24, 2012

Linking Asperger's, shooting misguided

Advocates want to dispel any notion that a person with Asperger's is any more inclined to commit an atrocity like the Connecticut massacre than any other person.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

Peggy Schick of Topsham was furious when she heard early news reports describing the Connecticut school shooter as having Asperger's syndrome.

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Peggy Schick of Topsham, whose son, Wyatt Luke, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, says stories linking the disorder to the Connecticut school shooting are based on misinformation, a sentiment echoed by advocates nationwide.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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ASPERGER’S SYNDROME is an autism spectrum disorder, one of a distinct group of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties and restrictive, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

Source: National Institutes of Health

"It made me sick as soon as I heard it," said Schick, whose 16-year-old son was diagnosed with Asperger's, a mild form of autism. "People who aren't informed about autism are thinking, 'Oh! That's it! That's why this happened.' (But) it's like saying 'He was tall,' or 'He had red hair.' It's an irresponsible, uninformed response."

Later media reports added caveats or quoted autism experts saying that people with Asperger's are not prone to violent behavior, but for many advocates, the damage was done.

"It makes ASD (autism spectrum disorder) kids all of a sudden cast in the light of homicidal crazies," said Mark Wilson, who has a grown son with Asperger's living in the Lewiston-Auburn area. "These kids have a hard enough time. (People) really need to focus the anger and the action on the right problem -- access and treatment for health care -- not just find a group of people to blame and chase them around with pitchforks."

The Maine Autism Alliance and the Autism Society of Maine both put out Facebook statements cautioning against linking the shootings to Asperger's and provided links to statements from the Autism Society. Parents of Asperger's children flooded Facebook and Twitter with outrage in the hours and days after a 20-year-old man killed 26 students and school staff on Dec. 14, condemning the label on the shooter and how the media handled the story.

Advocates want to dispel any notion that a person with Asperger's is any more inclined to commit an atrocity like the Connecticut massacre than any other person.

"There is no research that shows a link between Asperger's and planned, violent behavior," said Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson, a licensed clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

A person with Asperger's may become frustrated and act out in the moment, but there is nothing to indicate he would act in a planned, calculated way like the school shootings, said Laugeson, who does research on Asperger's.

Asperger's can be characterized by poor social skills and an inability to read people or social situations. Unlike other forms of autism, Asperger's does not typically involve delays in mental development or speech, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As a diagnosis, it's about to go away entirely. This month, officials decided to drop the term Asperger's from the diagnostic manual used by the nation's psychiatrists. Instead, Asperger's will be incorporated under the umbrella term "autism spectrum disorder" for all the ranges of autism.

About one in 88 children in the United States has autism or a related disorder, according to the CDC.

For parents, linking Asperger's to the shooting undoes much of the recent progress in Asperger's becoming more widely understood.

"I was afraid this would give people the validation they needed to continue to bully my son," said Paula Gentilini, 40, who works at a retirement community and has a teenage son with Asperger's. "We already moved school districts because he was the victim of bullying. People don't seem to have the compassion for people with (autism) as much as, say, Down syndrome."

Many families noted that the killer's mother apparently removed him from school, home schooled him and did not talk about any problems, although others who came into contact with the boy said there were clear signs of extreme social awkwardness. They recognized their own struggles with getting the right fit for their child at a school, or the isolating nature of caring for a child with Asperger's.

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