Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome have been in the news recently due to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut in which the gunman was said to have been on the spectrum. Mental health conditions, particularly in which someone would feel compelled to take human life, are often misunderstood, but autism experts and parents are very quick to point out that violence is not trait that is common to those with an autism spectrum disorder.
"There really is no evidence that links autism or Asperger's to violence," said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at the nonprofit advocacy group Autism Speaks and a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
'People with psychiatric disorders are more likely to hurt themselves,' adds Harold Kopelwicz, a renowned New York child psychiatrist. 'Having Asperger’s disorder by itself doesn’t put one at higher risk for killing someone or killing themselves.”
Asperger’s Disorder was first described in the 1940’s by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger who observed autistic-like behaviors and difficulty with social and communications skills in boys who had normal intelligence and language development. Asperger’s is sometimes considered a “mild form” of autism because those with the condition are typically higher functioning, even brilliant.
Children with autism are frequently seen as aloof and uninterested in others. Those with Asperger’s, however, do usually want to fit in and have interaction, but are socially awkward and not understanding of conventional social rules. They may have limited eye contact, seem to be unengaged in a conversation, and may not understand the use of gestures.
The Autism Society notes that some patients with Asperger’s may show a lack of empathy toward others. However, this is not the same lack of empathy that characterizes severe mental illness such as antisocial personality disorder. Asperger’s patients simply struggle to understand the rules of the world, says Kelly Babcock on PsychCentral.com. But “few, if any, would get up in the morning and wonder if a mass killing would be okay.”
"Research suggests that aggression among people with autism spectrum conditions can occur 20 to 30% more often than compared to the general population," says Eric Butter, an assistant professor of pediatrics and psychology at Ohio State University. "Aggression that we see in autism can best be described as disruptive and irritable behavior and is often consistent with the communication and social difficulties that are the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders. It is a very human experience that when you cannot explain how you are feeling, that you will then act out in frustration, anger, and aggression. But, it is not consistent with the diagnosis that you would plan and execute a crime like we saw here."
Added Dawson: "Whenever there is a horrible tragedy like this one, people want to make sense out of it and they're trying to look for answers. I think it's important that we be very clear that if this individual did have Asperger's or autism - which we don't know [for sure] that he did - this is not going to help us understand what happened. Because there really is no link between the two."
Soon, there may no longer be a distinction between Asperger’s and other autistic disorders. In Spring 2013, the term “Asperger’s” will be folded into the larger category of “Autism Spectrum Disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The intention of the change is to make identifying ASD less confusing for physicians and create more consistent diagnoses for the condition, said Catherine Lord, PhD, a member of the DSM-5 neurodevelopmental disorders work group.
“The logic was, people use Asperger’s to mean so many different things. … There really are no two people or major diagnostic centers that use [the diagnosis] in exactly the same way,” said Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “This created enormous amounts of confusion.”
Lord hopes the new ASD criteria will lead more health professionals to focus not just on a patient’s ASD diagnosis but also on the individual’s skill level.
No matter what we call it, though, Americans need a greater understanding of mental health disorders. Says Kelly Babcock: “Society stigmatizes mental health, and that creates greater need for help and, at the same time, keeps people from seeking that help. You belittle the need, so funding isn’t allocated. You fuel the bigotry and it grows, creating larger waves of bigotry.”
Autism Speaks has issued a statement about the tragedy in Newtown, CT:
Our hearts go out to the families and town of Newtown, Connecticut in the wake of this heartbreaking event. Several media outlets are reporting that the shooter might have had an autism spectrum disorder. Some have also inaccurately reported that there is a linkage between autism and planned violence. We ask that blame not be placed on people with disabilities or disorders in the midst of these types of tragedies and that everyone keep the families of Newtown in their prayers. -Elizabeth Feld, President, Autism Speaks
Peter Bell, Autism Speaks’ executive vice president of programs and services, will be interviewed Monday morning, Dec. 17, on Fox5 New York’s “Good Day New York” show at 9:30 am ET. He will also address misconceptions about a linkage between autism spectrum disorders and planned violence in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.