In the news coverage of the terrible tragedy in Newtown Connecticut, it has been suggested that the murderer might have had Asperger's syndrome, though this has not been confirmed. If it is true, there are several issues that must be dealt with in the wake of this senseless tragedy. One is the reality that many kids with Asperger syndrome are quick to anger, may act impulsively and exhibit hostile reactions that seem to us to be way out of proportion to the stressor or event. These behaviors are noted in some (but certainly not all!) children and adolescents with Asperger syndrome. Parents, teachers and other care-givers must remain vigilant and proactive with these kids as they are growing and developing, both to prevent regrettable and impulsive actions that may cause harm to others, and to teach these kids alternative, and non-aggressive ways to react to stressful events or emotions.*
Unfortunately, many children and adolescents with Asperger's syndrome are the victims of bullying, and when things build up to a certain point, they may be more likely than so-called typical children to lash out in fear or in retribution. Sometimes these reactions seem to "come out of nowhere," but they may have been simmering in the minds of these kids for quite some time without being obvious to parents or counselors. There certainly have been incidents in which kids with this condition have acted on their impulses, and lashed out to hurt (or worse) siblings, friends, or less-well-known classmates.
This reality needs to be acknowledged at this point, given the allegations that the shooter in Connecticut had this diagnosis. This clinical observation is clearly not an indictment of others with this condition, but it certainly gives us pause to think about preventative and proactive efforts with students who have Asperger's, which is also known as high functioning autism.
The other truth that we have to acknowledge today is that kids with Asperger's syndrome, like all kids, may be scared that something bad could happen to them, not because they have Asperger's, but simply because they go to school. We know that kids with Asperger's tend to "lock on" to certain events and perseverate about them. This is especially true about traumatic events such as the Sandy Hook massacre. On one hand, the pragmatic, unemotional kid with Asperger syndrome might claim (and rightfully so) that "the likelihood that this event would be repeated is about 1 in 1000 schools; for it to happen in my school would be a heck of a lot less likely than winning the lottery." However, the kid with Asperger's who is under intense stress because he believes that this could happen to him is a child we need to take especially good care of during the coming days, weeks and months.
And then there is the student with Asperger's who might surmise that "if the kids hated me before because of my condition, now they're going to turn and run when they see me walking down the hall in school." To quote one recent young adult blog responder: "I am getting worried now. I hope that we are not stereotyped and singled out for this crap. I have been bullied and beat up enough in my 22 years." The implications of these possible reactions are complex, and they cannot be ignored.
The advice I have for parents (and teachers or mental health workers) in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy is that -- especially now -- kids with Asperger's syndrome need to understand that having that condition or diagnosis does not mean that they are the kind of person who takes the lives of innocent children and adults. We can tell them that there are evil people in the world, and there are people with mental illness, and some of them are kids. We can acknowledge that children with Asperger's may be both of these things, just like anyone else, but that this is very rare. We can assure them that most children with Asperger's are kind, inquisitive, creative and talented in a variety of ways. They are students, musicians, writers, comedians, workers and friends. They may be quirky, but they are capable of the same range of human emotions as the rest of us, and they may hurt like the rest of us. Most kids or young adults with this condition clearly know right from wrong, and have learned how to ask for help and how to gain self-control at stressful times.
When a special need becomes part of the picture when there's a tragedy, this always makes the story more complex. However, if a person with Asperger's syndrome commits a crime of any kind, this does not mean that people with this condition are criminals or are like to commit heinous crimes just because they have this condition--any more than if a truck-driver or violinist hurts someone, this means that all violinists or truck-drivers are dangerous people.
Parents of kids with Asperger's syndrome need to help anchor their sons and daughters in the midst of this tragic time. These kids need to be reminded of the good things that they have done and will continue to do, as well as their ability to seek help when they feel troubled, and to not react to their impulses in times of extreme stress. I tell parents to say to their son or daughter who is worried excessively about their own safety because of the Connecticut massacre to assure them, as would any parent, that schools are safe places; that events like this, however tragic, do not happen very often. These events get a lot of attention on TV, the internet and the papers, and are therefore difficult to ignore and even harder to forget.
If kids over-identify with the shooter because of the possible Asperger's syndrome, or express the worry that they too are capable of doing something horrific like this, parents and other care-givers must send the message that: "You are a good person; a kind person...who happens to have Asperger Syndrome. The actions of one very troubled young man have nothing to do with you. You are (child's name), and you are good. Keep saying that to yourself and come and talk to me (or some other helping person) if you have any thoughts that trouble you. That's what every kid should do, and I trust you to do just that." Since kids on the autism spectrum are often rather rule-bound, or are comforted by certain rituals, it may be important to add: "And that's a rule..this is something you must do"
* For parents, teachers and mental health professionals who may be seeking information about ways to reduce aggression in students with Asperger's, some very sensible strategies can be found here.