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 ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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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WHAT IS ASPERGER’S SYNDROME?

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

"We've been dealing with people not understanding my son for 10 years now," Schick said. "It takes patience."

Her son, Wyatt, has come a long way from being diagnosed as a young child. Today he has great grades, is learning Chinese and takes karate lessons. He loves puzzle games and hopes to one day design video games.

Meeting a stranger recently, he spoke at length, a bit haltingly but comfortably, about a range of topics while making eye contact and the occasional wry joke.

"I have all of the advantages of it," he said, referring to his high IQ and ability to focus, "not the disadvantages of it."

At this point, he and his family hesitate to say he has Asperger's, although they acknowledge it took that diagnosis and the hard work of managing that condition to get Wyatt to where he is today.

But it's worth it, said his father, Keith Luke.

"I've seen my own child grow through it and become a very successful, honor roll student," Luke said. "I'd tell other people going through it that it's not hell ... try to relax. There's a lot of good news."

Since the shooting, Laugeson said, her patients tell her they worry their children will be associated with the shooter.

"A lot of parents have expressed concern that their children will be viewed as monsters," Laugeson said. "I don't think the (Asperger's) is associated. There are probably plenty of other explanations for what happened in Connecticut."

Much of the medical care surrounding a person with Asperger's is teaching the child skills to essentially adapt to the condition, such as coaching him on how to respond in certain social situations or thoroughly explaining why people act a certain way -- smiling, crying -- since it's not something someone with Asperger's intuitively understands.

The other part of accommodating a child with Asperger's is educating the people in his orbit -- and by extension the general public -- so people understand why a person with Asperger's behaves the way he does.

"There's nothing in the diagnosis that's about violence," said Dania Jekel, executive director of the Asperger's Association of New England. The group has about 1,000 members in Maine. "When something like the shooting happens and it's associated with Asperger's, it's very, very hard for our community."

Jekel said many adults with Asperger's have "taken on that identity -- they're proud of it."

Now they're scared that if they're looking for work they won't be hired, or if they're working, people will be scared of them.

"It's the same in middle school or high school. They've come out and said they have Asperger's and now they're scared that people are worried about them or think they could do something like that."

The shooting will likely spark that fear, said Monique Meyers, who provides private consulting to families dealing with Asperger's and runs an Asperger's parents support group in York County.

"We tell them it's OK to talk about (having Asperger's) and you put yourself out there, and now everyone is going to look at you like you're a potential killer," said a frustrated Meyers, who has family members with Asperger's.

Schick said she worries that her son will take away the wrong message from the shooting stories.

"It makes me worry that he's going to think that he's more prone to violence," Schick said. "He has enough to contend with, and now he has this to contend with?"

Bruce Thompson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern Maine, said it was human nature for people to latch on to the idea that the Connecticut killer had something "wrong" with him. Thompson said he saw where the Connecticut shooting "theory" was going as soon as news reports mentioned Asperger's.

"I thought, here's another situation where people will try to make a spurious connection between the two things. Everyone's desperate for a reason," said Thompson, whose research is about how children read others' feelings, something Asperger's patients are unable to do.

"In the case of the Connecticut murders, we can conclude absolutely nothing," Thompson said. "As a society grasping for answers, we need to be patient. You can't make a correlation out of two data points."

Like others, Jekel said the focus now should be on providing care to those in need.

"The discussion needs to happen. The services are not there, particularly for teens and young adults," she said. "There is awareness of the gun issue and the mental health issue after the shootings, and I hope people are ready to take action on both fronts."

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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