Don’t Blame Autism For Violence, Advocates Say

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

Within hours of the Newtown school massacre Friday, media outlets such as Fox began reporting that the young man police identified as the shooter — Adam Lanza — had an autism spectrum disorder. They said their information came from a comment Lanza’s brother, Ryan, made to law enforcement officials, as well as suggestions from family friends and acquaintances.

Several reporters referred to Lanza’s autism as fact and in the same breath, they mentioned his alleged atrocities – leaving the impression that one had led to the other.

The autism community reacted with horror to that suggestion. advocates took to the Internet to express concern about the way the media was portraying Lanza and autism. Several blogs appeared and were widely shared, including Slate’s Emily Willingham, who explained that just because people with Asperger’s have trouble reading other people’s emotional cues doesn’t mean they don’t have empathy – and certainly doesn’t make them more inclined toward violence. Ron Fournier of National Journal also wrote a widely circulated piece urging readers not to stigmatize those with Asperger’s, like his son Tyler, 15.


Tweets abounded in response to the suggestion that there was somehow a link between autism and the elementary school tragedy:

“I’ve been lucky to work with some VERY wonderful people with autism. Don’t stereotype, please,” one said. “Would be a huge blow to the wonderful Autism community that has come so far if in fact Lanza was on the spectrum…” noted another.

“We don’t believe that it was the autism that caused this act to occur,” said Peter Bell, executive vice president of Autism Speaks, an advocacy group. “It is not part of the definition of autism.”

There is no link between autism and violence against others. Studies show that anyone with a disability is far more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator of one, and nearly half of teenagers on the spectrum have reportedly been the victim of bullying.

“We need to remember that in the aftermath of horrifying tragedies like this, for fear of adding to the stereotypes and prejudice that Autistic people and others with disabilities already face,” said Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a group of adults who identify themselves as having an autism spectrum diagnosis.

“Autistic Americans are a minority group like any other – we have the same hopes and aspirations as anyone,” Ne’eman, also an Obama appointee to the National Council on Disability, wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “To go to a good school, be employed in a fulfilling job, be welcomed in our own communities – all of those things are damaged when stereotypes and fear color popular perception about who we are.”

Bell said he would like the media and public to put speculation about Adam Lanza’s possible diagnoses on hold until the facts are known. “I think we have an ask to the community as a whole: please don’t rush to a judgement on this,” Bell said. “Once we have the facts, let’s put it into context.”

There are always multiple factors that trigger someone to commit an atrocity like this, he said. Even if Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, that may have no more to do with his actions than the fact that he had white skin and lived in a fancy suburb.
“To try to single out one thing would be dangerous and irresponsible,” Bell said.

Dr. Jerome Schultz, a clinical neuropsychologist and consultant to Boston-area school districts, including Newton and Cambridge, said he’s worried about the effect the tragedy will have on families touched by autism.

Kids with an autism diagnosis are likely to be more anxious than their peers, Schultz said, which may lead to extra worry that someone could bring a gun and start shooting in their own school. Because of the repetitive actions and fixations that are part of the definition of autism, these children may be less able than neurotypical peers to move on from that paralyzing fear, he said.

He’s also concerned about their siblings, hearing media reports connecting autism to such violence. “I worry about the brothers and sisters of these kids because they’ve got the tragedy too, but also ‘oh my goodness what would that do to my life if my sibling pulled a stunt like this,’” Schultz said.

He said he’s worried, too, for their parents, who are likely to have less social support than most, because of the isolation and stigma that often comes with parenting a non-typical child.

Bell knows that well. He said that he responded to last week’s tragedy the same way as the rest of the country, with pain and sorrow. But as the father of a 19-year-old who has an autism diagnosis, the news hits him more personally, too.

“I hope people don’t look at [my son] differently as a result of what they’re hearing in this event,” Bell said. “He’s a very gentle, warm, kind soul and someone incapable of doing anything remotely close to this but I do worry that … people might look at him a little differently as a result of this. And to me that’s one of the saddest outcomes.”

Bell said he hopes that there can be an upside to the early, negative publicity about autism. Some people might take the opportunity learn more about the condition, which affects one in 88 American children and an unknown number of adults.

“Hopefully, if there is a positive out of this, it will spark some people to recognize that we have a significant public health crisis and we need to have better leadership and better recognition that something needs to be done,” he said.

Is last week’s rampage a sign that our society is not doing enough to help people with disabilities? Ne’eman doesn’t think so.

“We advocate for more services and better quality supports every day and the system is profoundly in need of change,” he wrote. “But that wasn’t what caused the shootings in Connecticut. To try and conflate the two is to suggest that youth and adults with disabilities are inherently violent and need services to prevent us from wreaking havoc on the broader public. That is not a right or accurate message to put out to the world.

“We need a better support system because that will help empower us to live the lives we want to lead – not because we are going to become violent without it.”

Karen Weintraub, a Cambridge-based health/science journalist, is co-author with Dr. Martha Herbert, of “The Autism Revolution.”

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  • Emily Malabey

    The media’s irresponsible reporting of someone’s *possible* dx is infuriating. The disclosure was not their decision to make, and they doubtfully had any lawful permission to do so. In Americans’ emotional response, logic, decency and legality were left to the wind. Shameful.

  • Emily Malabey

    Fact: Autism is not a mental illness.

    Fact: Autism Speaks is not so much an “advocacy” organization as it is an organization which focuses on research for preventions, prenatal screenings,and cures for anything on the spectrum, and often misrepresents autism in PSA’s. Many of us disapprove of their fear-mongering, as it does hurt progress and the advancement of futures for autistic people.

    Fact: Autistic people are continuously marginalized, targeted, abused, and discriminated against in our culture. Sorry if some of you do not realize this. Do some research. If we are too defensive for your liking, get over it or help us make a positive difference.

    Fact: Following TWO recent incidents (Newtown and the movie theater), media have irresponsibly suggested “autism as cause” of mass murder. We have a right and a responsibility to speak out, or we are not responsible, effective advocates at all.

  • tstag

    Maybe we should blame the society that creates people with “Autism”. How does it go from 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 100 in 40 years? How does it go from a Mass Murder (Texas Tower in 1966) to 1999 (Columbine) and then we get Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown in 13 years? It is Society fostering the growth of undisciplined children. They give them Everything and wonder why they want more. We as a society can’t deal with them, so we call the Autistic (boys almost 4 times the rate of girls, yeah, right…).

    We have met the Enemy and it is Us.

  • John Best

    Jeffrey Dahmer, Cho of Virginia Tech, Eric Auvinen in Finland and the Columbine pair are evidence that people with Asperger’s are extremely dangerous. We can cure them though and that’s what people need to learn.

    • Jennifer Humphries

      Yeah, because that’s a representative population – not to mention that they’re not all associated with ASD. But, hey! Throw a few random names out, and bam! Statistics! And not all of us want a cure, thank you very much. Asperger’s isn’t mental illness – it’s a developmental disorder, which means our brains develop differently from “normal” people’s brains. The question is, can you cure being a white male? Because that’s the population most likely to go and commit mass murder in the US. There is much more going on here, like the issues caused by a society that promises white men certain things if they behave a certain way, and then does nothing the alleviate the rage that occurs when the promised rewards never happen. Clearly, all you know of autism is what you’ve learned from TV and movies. Unsurprisingly, just like every other topic ever, this is not a comprehensive education, specifically regarding people who are “other” and “different”. The plot lines are the same ones that have been recycled for decades, with no updated knowledge or current research.

      • John Best

        Everyone wants to be cured of Asperger’s and autism. We know this is true since nobody who has already been cured has asked to have the mercury reinjected into their brains to destroy their lives again. Then we have liars who show up on these threads to promote a lot of nonsense about autism.

  • Tom

    Hey folks – let’s be real. Forget about the guns. What we need to do is ban all crazy people. (You know who you are)

    • Gary

      Hey Tom, it’s pretty crazy to ban yourself. Were you planning to use a gun?

  • brian

    My god folks, Mentally ill, is mentally ill. I dont care what you call it. everyone who is mentally ill should be on that fancy list obuma was going to institute for medical records. these names, should be provided to for the background checks. and please i have seen several autistic kid just go Crazy for not getting there way.

  • caiusKeys

    Seems that the advocates from this community — like all single-issue pressure groups — might not have the perspective to comment on the situation in a disinterested manner.

  • Bob B

    Of course the autism community wants to distance itself from the comment. They want people to think that all autistic kids are super sweet and really empathetic inside. But the fact remains that not all of them are. I’ve seen more than a few autistic kids that had very violent, uncontrollable outbursts. I’ve seen parents excusing their child’s violent outbursts with “Oh, he’s autistic..”

    There’s a lot that we don’t know about autism.

    • regular guy

      I KNOW…With 1 in 84 born that way now I’m SHOCKED this type of thing doesnt happen once a week!!!

      • Bob B

        “Mass (public) shootings” have actually *not* been happening more frequently either. I say public because there have been a few “more than 3 people shot at one location” shooting incidents that were 100% related to domestic violence and were not random incidents where the victims were not known to the shooter.

        What a horrible tragedy this was. As a responsible firearm owner, I am angry and sick at all the hyperbole floating around, all of the finger pointing and blame, and I am furious at the evil person that committed the atrocity.

      • Lou

        It’s not bcuz of autism. Get educated before you speak. If it were it would happen everyday. Don’t be nieve. It was horrible I’m still in shock it happened but don’t go pointing fingers. I’ve worked with autistic kids for 10 years and this didn’t happened because of autism.

        • John Best

          Lou, agree, this didn’t happen due to autism. It was because of Asperger’s, a markedly different condition from autism. Kids with autism could never plan or carry out this sort of horror. It’s the ones from the high functioning end of the spectrum who “snap” and go berserk.
          Autistic kids might hit people by accident when they have meltdowns and can’t control themselves. They aren’t responsible for their actions. People with Asperger’s though, are pretty weird and you never know what might set them off. We should cure all of them.

          • Lou

            John I have never seen asbegers affect anyone like this. There is other things that are going on with this guy. But when we shout it out in the news everyone is going to be gunning for autistic kids. Autism was not the reason maybe having assault rifle and bad parenting should be looked at.

          • Lou

            I also respect your opinion John hopefully we can all get through this with no more bloodshed

          • Mary P.

            You’re wrong, Asperger is a form of autism, I know because I HAVE asperger. When people like you say things like that you have an effect on the world and soon people like me will have to live with the consequences of your stupidity. If people do not educate themselves about these things and believe these stereotypes, how can there be a future for us?

    • Mary P.

      That’s just them being ignorant and not understanding the position those children are in. Some of them can not deal with not being able to understand there surroundings. My thirteen year old brother has Asberger Syndrome, which is the mildest form of autism, and is only ever commits self inflicting his violence.

      • Bob B

        That doesn’t mean that autistis/aspies are incapable of violence. My point was that the community was very quick to jump on it with a protective blanket and was saying that nope, there’s no way, “autistic people (or aspbies) aren’t violent” when many of us know that simply isn’t true. Autism is misunderstood but to immediately claim that there’s no way the violence was related is also ignorant.

        We don’t know what was really wrong with this Lanza character either. It all seems to be speculation at this point. But not all autistic people are loving bundles of misunderstood empathy either. Let’s just be realistic here…

    • Emily Malabey

      Bob, the kids you reference likely have a co-morbid condition which may manifest in “violent outbursts”. Autism does not manifest with violence.
      Further, of course not all autistic people are the same! Are all brown eyed people or all women, men, or black people the same?

  • mmandahl

    Don’t blame mental illness, don’t blame movies, don’t blame video games, don’t blame parents. It’s the gun’s fault. Once you put a gun in someone’s hands, they just get the overwhelming feeling to commit murder.

  • CEC.onelife

    No, autism is not to blame for anything. But parents need to monitor their children closely, regardless of their state of mind, especially if there are weapons of any kind in the house. Those weapons need to be in a locked, secure place.

    • Lou


  • nindicapinion

    Proof this massacre was orchestrated:
    youtube. com/watch?v=exU5eWyz23Y
    (remove space before com)

  • Bo Li

    I don’t understand why people want to read so much into this event and attempt to lay blame. If we can recognize that Hitler isn’t what all Germans are like, why can’t we just STOP this madness of expanding blame to inanimate objects and to mentally disabled. A person is only responsible for their own crimes – the idea you can blame their problem on others is utter madness.

  • Bob Solla

    sure!all the idiots are blaming an inanimate object for the murders rather than the real problem at hand:the person you did it!

  • regular guy

    Shame on EVERY media outlet that has a story mentioning Autism and this monsters actions in the same story. As a parent it is hard enough to have people look at your child sideways or keep their own child from playing with yours the second they hear the word Autism simply because they don’t understand what it means. Now the media is adding even more ignorant prejudice to those who have a hard enough time as it is with what the rest of the world does not understand. The truth is that some of the world’s brightest minds and most influential people are on the Autism spectrum yet no one ever mentions this among their accomplishments. Some of these great minds have helped create technology that we use every day. Some have given us art and music that have enhanced our lives. Some have even become great leaders and helped forge nations. It is true that an Autistic person may think, see or hear things different than you but that’s the beauty of people… we are not all the same. Perhaps if there is any “link” to be made here it is that nothing good can ever come from treating a child like they are unwanted or unworthy simply because they are different. Maybe if we put aside our prejudice misconceptions based on ignorance and simply show all children love the way we
    should we wouldn’t have to hear about so many monsters in the world…

    • caiusKeys

      A severely autistic, mainstreamed kid stabbed and killed a classmate at a high school in a nearby town. What would you say to the victim’s parents?

      • regular guy

        I really don’t know…I’ve never known anyone who’s kid was stabbed to death.

        • caiusKeys

          I think about Capote’s _In Cold Blood_, in which he really delved into the mind of the killer, while the victims received relatively little attention. It seems to be a modern problem, and the exercise arguably killed Capote.

      • Lou

        I think that it could have been severe emotionally challenged kid that did that it’s a different disability. I read up on it.

  • Dhed

    Lets all remember that it wasn’t this individual’s metal state that caused all of this after. It was the gun’s fault. If he wouldn’t have had a gun he would have never done this.

    • Bo Li

      Yes, guns whispered to his ear and told him to do it… DO IT!! DO IT, THE POWER OF AMMO COMPELS YOU!!

    • Gregg Kwey

      Gun don’t kill people. People kill people. Knife + martial art @Bruce Lee level very likely are capable of same level of carnage.

  • Tom

    Let’s just keep on blaming guns and not the failed mental capacity of the shooters wrecking havoc. Are we to believe the killers and their doctors are all just poor, innocent victims, It’s those guns and the people stopping the bullets who are at fault.

    • karo pones

      Is true, but a lunatic with murderous instincts, will do much less damage if weapons that were produced to fight wars, were not so easily available.

      • Tom

        So your bright idea is to take away tools of defense for those who are upright citizens who follow the law and don’t harm others?

  • Cindy Bealstrom

    Apparently they CAN be very violent so lets do everything we can to deny this and not examine the chemicals this kid was fed. Everything except whats at the heart of this should be targeted however.

    • regular guy

      Pure ignorance- do you hate other peoples based on prejudice you have acquired through media…?

  • Jason Mundstuk

    This is exactly the kind of defensive crap that keeps us paralyzed. Nobody is saying that autistic/Asberger people are violent. We are saying that some people with untreated mental illness or difficulties or whatever the hell you want to call it can be violent.

    • Jeff Jordan

      it seems to me that a violent person with a disability such as asbergers would be more than capable of this kind of action so instead of blaming the disease we still blame the person but attribute at least in some part his condition. we can also, in small part, blame the mother for having the guns accessible to her potentially violent child. again not saying its the disease but im sure it didnt help the situation.

    • Emily Malabey

      What a sad comment.

    • Emily Malabey

      Fact: Autism is not a mental illness.

      Fact: Autism Speaks is not so much an “advocacy” organization as it
      is an organization which focuses on research for preventions, prenatal
      screenings,and cures for anything on the spectrum, and often
      misrepresents autism in PSA’s. Many of us disapprove of their
      fear-mongering, as it does hurt progress and the advancement of futures
      for autistic people.

      Fact: Autistic people are continuously marginalized, targeted,
      abused, and discriminated against in our culture. Sorry if some of you
      do not realize this. Do some research. If we are too defensive for your
      liking, get over it or help us make a positive difference.

      Fact: Following TWO recent incidents (Newtown and the movie theater),
      media have irresponsibly suggested “autism as cause” of mass murder. We
      have a right and a responsibility to speak out, or we are not
      responsible, effective advocates at all. e…