Viewpoints: Don’t blame Asperger’s syndrome for Isla Vista or Newtown massacres

Like Adam Lanza, the man responsible for the Newtown school massacre, Elliot Rodger, the man who killed six students in Isla Vista, had been labeled as having Asperger’s syndrome.

Let’s not connect violence with individuals who may be on the autism spectrum. There is no diagnostic reason for doing so. Violent behavior, or psychopathology marked by paranoid delusions or mania, do not appear in the most recent, or any, diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders.

However, with the recent announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the prevalence for autism spectrum disorder is now 1 in 68 live births, it stands to reason that, rarely, a person who commits a crime might be on the spectrum. Persons who commit such crimes may also be black, or brown, or white, or tall, or thin, or poor, or rich, or of any religion or political persuasion.

Asperger’s syndrome is now subsumed under the broader label of autism spectrum disorder, although some individuals prefer to use it to refer to people who have an IQ in the typical to high-functioning range and who have never had major language deficits.

That said, a high percentage of individuals with autism spectrum disorders do have comorbid mental illness or psychopathology. Most are characterized as having externalizing disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or internalizing disorders such as depression or anxiety. As children with autism spectrum disorders age, internalizing disorders become more prevalent. These disorders – in conjunction with the poor social understanding and unusual repetitive behaviors, interests or activities of the youths with autism spectrum disorders – all too often lead to bullying or social rejection by their peers.

What is relevant to the deaths in Isla Vista, Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere, is that the perpetrators were reported to have been isolated or lonely while growing up, or otherwise marginalized by their childhood or adolescent peers. The stark and foreboding presentations of these youths have not received adequate attention from teachers and mental health professionals.

According to statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20-somethings have the highest rate of mental illness among any adult age groups. Many young people don’t recognize or try to ignore the early stages of mental illness, so they also have the lowest rate of use of mental health services. And while parents may be consciously or unconsciously aware of their child’s situation, they are hardly objective and – understandably – not likely to expect their own child to suddenly take the lives of many others.

So where do we go from here? There are at least three healthy alternatives we could adopt. The first would be to recognize that marginalizing and bullying of children is wrong, and that it begins in the early school years. Indeed, a 5-year-old little boy in our own work with children on the autism spectrum said: “School is the meanest place on earth.”

Teachers and other school professionals must foster more inclusive school communities and nurture acceptance and tolerance for differences.

There is ample research to suggest that the feeling of belonging is important to psychological well-being. Researchers have found that students with a higher sense of school belonging experienced lower depression, social rejection and subsequent school problems. Teachers, school psychologists and other school specialists need better training in how to spot children at risk.

Second, we need wider and broader access to child mental health services in this country. This means better integration of the mental health system with the public school system and, at times, the legal authorities. It also means provision of informed care to all youths at risk regardless of family financial resources.

Third, we need to avoid the mistake of confusing correlation with causation.

Asperger’s syndrome, if this was indeed an accurate diagnosis for Elliot Rodger, had nothing to do with his crimes. There is no simple cause for the type of behavior that took place in Isla Vista. There are multiple causes – family, school, personality, mental illness, life events – that interact and result in violence. We need to understand better how our systems of care could have missed the early warning signs.