Knowing Is Half the Battle: Stopping the Autism Stigma after Sandy Hook
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Knowing Is Half the Battle: Stopping the Autism Stigma after Sandy Hook

By Richard Console on February 12, 2013

When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting shocked and devastated the nation on December 14, 2012, people everywhere struggled to understand why the tragedy occurred. What possible reason would there be for a 20-year-old man to burst into an elementary school armed with semi-automatic weapons and kill 26 innocent people, 20 of them children between the ages of six and seven?

 Though our nation’s focus after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, should have been on supporting the grieving families, the unsubstantiated media reports alleging that the shooter had Asperger’s syndrome created the potential for damaging stigma toward everyone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Photo Credit: Bbjeter, Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).

In the haste to find an easy answer for a tragic and complicated problem, many news sources jumped the proverbial gun. They blamed the tragedy on an often misunderstood pervasive developmental condition, and they did so in a way that is not only misleading, but potentially dangerous to the nearly 2,000,000 Americans with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In the last couple of decades, the rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses have sharply increased, even more so than the rates of many other disorders and disabilities. It’s important to note that Autism Spectrum Disorders are not mental illnesses, but instead fall under the category of developmental disorders, as do attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

As someone whose family has been personally touched by autism – a relative of mine has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, the same developmental disorder that allegedly affected the Sandy Hook shooter, according to news media – it didn’t take long for me to realize the consequences of these claims. The simple mention of the disorder in this context in early reports (such as The Atlantic Wire’s aptly-titled article “What We Think We Know About the Apparent Newtown Shooter”) could jeopardize the hard-won progress of advocacy groups and leave autistic individuals, like my loved one, facing bullying, exclusion, and social prejudice. In the days following the shooting and subsequent blame, I quickly learned that other families with a link to autism shared my fear that the terrible actions of a single disturbed young man – who may or may not have actually been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder – could impact everyone with the disorder.

These individuals and their families already face social stigma because the disorders are so poorly understood by the general populace. When major news sources incorrectly indicate that disorders like autism and Asperger’s syndrome lead people to engage in social violence and mass shootings, the potential for increased stigma becomes even greater. And in a situation where people are as outraged and frustrated as they are in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting – no matter how justified that outrage is – there’s a higher chance that public backlash against the wrong targets could actually turn dangerous.

While the ways that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders experience the world may differ, this video clip gives one interpretation of “What Autism Feels Like.” Video Credit: YouTube (Creative Commons license).

Debunking the Autism-Violence Myth

Autism does not make a person violent. Asperger’s syndrome does not make a person violent. Yet, by reading and listening to the sensationalized news stories that appeared early on after the shooting, that’s exactly the impression an audience will develop. For those with loved ones diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the implications are startling. I know that my relative with Asperger’s syndrome would never hurt anyone, but does the average Joe, who only knows the snippet of “expert” opinions he hears on the news, know that? Probably not.

Unfortunately, speculative news stories that link Autism Spectrum Disorders with mass violence make it hard for those who don’t understand developmental disorders to see that many characteristics attributed to autism are harmless. Photo Credit: CountincrWikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).

The families of individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders already know that while these developmental disorders can be challenging, a child (or adult) with Asperger’s can be sweet, empathetic, and loving. Though early media reports implied that an Autism Spectrum Disorder (the supposed diagnosis of which has not been confirmed by any psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor as of yet) may have been the reason that this particular mass shooting took place, the statistics about autism and violence show that just the opposite is true in the majority of cases.

Researchers in Denmark found that, in the cases studied, only 0.9 percent of patients with childhood autism were convicted of criminal behavior, as compared with 18.9 percent of cases in which the individual did not have any autism spectrum or developmental disorder, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. UK blog Left Brain Right Brain translates the statistics into layman’s terms: “Yes, autistics are as much as 20 times less likely to be convicted of crimes as their ‘typical’ counterparts.” For the people wondering, the Danish researchers also studied atypical autism and Asperger’s syndrome specifically and determined that those individuals also displayed lower rates of criminal behavior than those without a developmental disorder diagnosis, though the difference was less remarkable.


Studies show that criminal convictions of individuals who had childhood autism occur as much as 20 times less frequently than in the general population. Could you imagine what a better place the world would be if 20 times fewer crimes were committed among these “typical” individuals in the comparison group? Photo Credit: MalingeringWikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).

On the occasions when violence and autism do intersect – because individuals with autism face many of the same (if not more) challenges that can drive even individuals without any disorder to violence – it is rarely in nightmarish planned social acts of violence, like mass shootings. “Researchers distinguish between two types of aggression: affective and predatory,” reported a Slate article following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Affective aggression refers to violent reactive outbursts, like yelling or hitting. The dangers of affective violence committed by any person (whether autism is a factor or not) shouldn’t be underestimated, but there is a major difference between aggressive yelling or hitting that results from snapping under environmental pressure and, say, shooting up a school or a movie theater. When the shooter “donned black fatigues and a military vest, drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School with three of his mother’s guns, and ruthlessly gunned down everyone he found—this was an example of predatory aggression that is generally not seen in the autistic population,” the Slate author added.

Other experts agree. “The kind of planned and intentional type of violence we have seen at Newtown” is uncommon among autistic individuals, a psychologist told USA Today, adding that “these types of tragedies have occurred at the hands of individuals with many different types of personalities and psychological profiles.”

Since the shooting, autism advocacy groups and bloggers have worked overtime to get the correct information out to the general public: that autism is a developmental disorder rather than a mental illness, and that there is no link between Autism Spectrum Disorders and premeditated social violence. They made their voices heard, loud and clear. In response to the vocal backlash from advocacy groups, doctors, and families touched by autism, a number of media sources (including those that initially reported the misrepresentative information) have since published articles and opinion/editorial pieces focused on debunking the myth that autism causes acts of mass violence, including: CNN, TIME, Fox News, The Washington Post,, The Examiner, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.

Despite the tragedy of the situation as a whole, the way that everyone in the autism community came together to stand up for the truth, even against influential major news networks, is inspiring. It’s too soon to know for sure if these efforts were enough to fully prevent an increased stigma toward autistic individuals, but the only way to get the general public to better understand the developmental disorders is to share true, reliable information when others are spreading rumors. By continuing to educate those with no firsthand experience with Autism Spectrum Disorders, we can show that just because our autistic loved ones may think, communicate, or react a little differently than their “neurotypical” counterparts in certain situations doesn’t mean that they are dangerous or lacking in empathy. When others are teaching fear, we need to continue to show them how wonderful and caring our autistic loved ones really are.

Now, more than ever, it’s important to raise awareness in the general public about what Autism Spectrum Disorders are – and what they’re not. Photo Credit: Jason Bullett, Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).

Autism and Mental Illness

When an individual with autism or Asperger’s syndrome does commit a violent crime, as we allegedly saw in the case of the Sandy Hook shooting, the media may be quick to jump on known or suspected details, like autism, and ignore the possibility that other causes may have been at work. Because it’s a quick attention-grabber, because it makes for a compelling story, or because the public understands so little about this disorder, it’s easy for news sources to say, directly or indirectly, “Autism made him do it.”

Any misleading allegations against autistic individuals aside, I think we can all agree that a person at an optimal level of mental and emotional health and in a rational mental state would not commit a mass shooting. In situations like the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, and other mass shootings, there is nothing for the gunman to gain from his horrific actions. There is no apparent financial gain, no clear social protest, and no understandable motive that would make sense to a person thinking and behaving in rational ways. Regardless of any results that current investigations could possibly uncover, these tragedies result from the actions of individuals who are clearly very disturbed.

In those instances where individuals with autism exhibited violence, as many as 84 percent were also found to have a psychiatric disorder (a mental illness, as compared to Autism Spectrum Disorders, which are actually defined as developmental disorders), according to a 2008 study cited by WebMD. Don’t misunderstand this to suggest that the majority of autistic individuals have these mental illnesses. They don’t. It’s simply that, when an individual who happens to have autism does commit a violent crime, it is statistically likely that a mental illness was involved. Instead of “autism made them do it,” the reality may very well be that undiagnosed or poorly-controlled serious mental illnesses, like severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, contributed to the shocking actions of these gunmen.

For the general public, the distinction between pervasive developmental disorders and mental illnesses may not be common knowledge, maybe because both are diagnosed by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). When the new DSM-5 is released in May 2013, both autistic disorder and Asperger’s syndrome will fall under the term Autism Spectrum Disorder. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

The Impact on Our Loved Ones with Autism (and Without)

For every parent – for every person – the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a wake-up call that we are not as safe as we’d like to think. Parents everywhere had moments of fear and sorrow as they imagined the all-too-real dangers that could occur at their child’s school. Many moms and dads felt at least a moment of reservation putting their children on the bus or dropping them off at school the following Monday, knowing that for 20 grieving families in Newtown, that fateful Friday morning’s “Have a good day” became a final goodbye. For parents of children with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, that universal fear is compounded by an additional worry.

With Autism Spectrum Disorders now affecting approximately one in 88 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prospect of increased social stigma is a big deal. Already, 46.3 percent of children and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders are bullied, according to The Huffington Post. While nearly half of all autistic adolescents are getting picked on, only 10.6 percent of those without the developmental disorder reported being bullied. Imagine the rates of bullying if neurotypical children – and their parents – buy into the misleading reports linking autism and violence. Will that bullying rate eventually reach 50 percent? 60 percent?

While no parent wants to see their child upset, the danger of bullying isn’t only short-term, either. In those situations where autistic individuals are also predisposed to the types of mental illnesses that are statistically more likely to lead to violence, any additional bullying on the basis of an autism disorder diagnosis may actually contribute to the type of situations that lead to these violent actions later down the road. In essence, by treating autistic children like prospective mass shooters, we could actually be increasing the likelihood that those with comorbid mental illnesses and inadequate medical and emotional support may eventually meet those unfortunate expectations.

If we want to protect all of our children, it’s time we all start talking about what factors do and do not contribute to acts of mass violence. By educating ourselves and those around us on the facts, we can stop the stigma against our loved ones with autistic spectrum disorders. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

If any good thing comes out of this horrific tragedy, I hope it’s a national discussion that leads all of us to a better understanding of both developmental disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorders and the vastly different types of mental illnesses. I hope that this heartbreaking event sparks a legitimate interest in the general public in learning more about both development disorders and mental illnesses, altering the way we as a society treat individuals with either type of disorder, and completely changing the way we look at both mental and developmental health.

After such a devastating tragedy, we as a nation need less hate and stigma and more love and support. If our news sources continue misplacing blame for these tragedies and our fellow news consumers keep believing the myths, this may only further the divide between those who have learned to live with the mysterious disorder and the general public, whose only experience comes from the overblown headlines on the evening news.

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