Letter to the Editor

Autism not an indicator of violence

December 19, 2012 

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The poignant descriptions of the young adult who took so many lives, and then his own, paint a picture that I am familiar with.

The few sentences from family members, neighbors and school mates describe a boy uncomfortable in social situations. He somehow did not process pain. He couldn’t look you in the eyes. He had no friends, sat alone at the back of the bus, was awkward, kept to himself, was very smart; they go on and on.

Not all of these descriptors may be found in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), but ask anyone who lives or works with individuals on the autism spectrum, and they can tell you the same thing I thought when I heard them; this young man had Asperger’s Syndrome.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders are more likely to be victims of crimes, swindles, and bullying than any other developmentally disabled individual. That is not to say that they are not capable of committing crimes themselves, but the point of my writing is to say that in Newtown, an individual committed a heinous crime, and he may have had an autism spectrum disorder. The connection between the autism and the crime is as vast a chasm as the one that exists in the network of care for those diagnosed with such disabilities.

There has been a great deal of writing in the press about those with autism having a proclivity to outbursts. No one can argue that point, but the reason behind those outbursts is not premeditated violence.

Typically outbursts from individuals with autism are reactionary or behavioral “rituals” that elicit specific responses from those around them. Many individuals on the autism spectrum respond to sensory over stimulation, but clearly an outburst of that nature would not end with shooting innocent people. And killing oneself after a shooting spree does not lend itself to simply seeking attention in an inappropriate manner.

So there must be more — more than an autism spectrum diagnosis. Such an unspeakable act is more than just the result of social awkwardness and difficulty navigating the neuro-typical world.

There is no doubt in my mind that this young man needed support, that his mother needed support, that they both would have benefited from social connections with others experiencing a life path similar to the one they were on.

I am not familiar with programs and services in Connecticut, but in California this young man, based on the descriptions I’ve read, would not have qualified for support from the Tri-Counties Regional Center, a state agency that provides specialized services for people with developmental disabilities, and most likely would not have received much assistance from school. The Tri-Counties Regional Center and public schools serve as primary channels of support for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. They are tasked with providing mandated support with little financial resources and are forced to make difficult decisions regarding qualifications.

He was academically skilled, yet socially isolated. It is the social isolation that I fear fueled the fire for these atrocities to have occurred. And it is this social isolation that must be addressed. If the Newtown shootings, among the other recent shootings, are to teach us anything, it is that there are those among us who are somehow capable of such horrors — that the state of mental health care in our nation needs to be addressed and assessed. And that irrespective of any diagnosis, the only way to stay abreast of what someone is thinking or planning is by being connected with them — somehow.

Juli Miller is executive director of the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center in San Luis Obispo, http://www.autismspectrumcenter.com. She can be reached at 763-1100.

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