Investigators believe Adam Lanza—now infamous for killing his mother, 26 students and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School and then himself—had Asperger's syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism. According to experts, there is no link between Asperger's syndrome, also known as Asperger's Disorder, and mass murder.
Asperger's, like other forms of autism, is a developmental disorder. It differs from classic autism because those with Asperger’s have on-time language development and average or above-average intelligence, whereas 75 percent of those with classic autism have varying degrees of intellectual disabilities, formerly known as mental retardation.
Autism is a neurobiological disorder—not a mental disorder—in which the brain functions differently from typical individuals, specifically affecting communication, both verbal and non-verbal, as well as speech.
Adam Lanza is described as a gifted genius who excelled academically, but also as a socially awkward, quiet, anxiety-ridden teenager who was unable to make good eye contact or connect with his peers. Poor eye contact is common in individuals who suffer from an autism spectrum disorder, as are social deficits.
An individual who is afflicted with Asperger’s can also have diagnoses, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar and myriad other mental health issues—just as a non-Asperger’s person can. Adam Lanza's brother, Randy, reported to officials that Adam was autistic and had a personality disorder.
Children who have an ASD and high intelligence, often falling into the cognitively gifted range, with IQs ranging from 130 to immeasurable, still have special needs. It is difficult to imagine a gifted child as having special needs, but giftedness in itself is an anomaly, and gifted children must be nurtured to reach their full potential. Twice exceptional (2E) children are those who are gifted but also have a special need or challenge.
Schools, even in the best districts, are often ill equipped to provide the proper support for 2E autistic children, and ABC News reported that Adam’s mother, Nancy Lanza, pulled her son out of high school and homeschooled him because she was not satisfied with the district's plans for him. An Individualized Education Plan, known as an IEP, is often provided for students who are known to have a disability. However, the resources to carry out IEP mandates, such as paraprofessional support, are often unavailable due to lack of funding.
The New York Daily News reported that Adam Lanza had a condition that caused him not to feel physical pain while playing baseball when he was younger. This condition is known as sensory processing disorder or sensory integration dysfunction, and is common in individuals on the autism spectrum. SPD can best be described as over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to tactile experiences, including touch. In Adam Lanza's case, it was extreme. However, these symptoms often diminish as a child gets older.
Like other types of autism, Asperger’s is treatable but not medically curable. It is often referred to as mild autism or high-functioning autism. Treatment methods may include medication for anxiety or associated sleep disorders, along with behavioral therapy and social skills groups. Occupational therapy is often employed to help individuals with Asperger’s cope with SPD.
The earlier that behavioral therapy begins, the more beneficial it is to an autistic child. It is unclear whether Adam Lanza was diagnosed in early childhood or received standard treatment and therapies. Asperger’s is often not diagnosed until later, because unlike classic autism, children with Asperger’s can speak, often have advanced vocabularies and function well, or at least adequately, in school. The average age at diagnosis is eight, and misdiagnoses often occur. It takes a skilled, experienced clinician to accurately diagnose Asperger’s.
Children with Asperger’s are often teased, bullied and physically assaulted due to social deficits, immature demeanor and repetitive behaviors. They are often described by peers as weird, strange and odd. Reportedly, bullying was not a problem for Adam Lanza, and those in the community were aware that he had issues and chose to allow him to be himself. His struggles appeared to be internal ones.
Per the Autism Society of America, 1 percent of children in the United States between the ages of 3 and 17 have autism, with boys affected five times as often as girls. More research is needed on prevention and treatment. Although Adam Lanza may have had Asperger’s syndrome, those who have an Asperger’s diagnosis have no more potential for mass murder than typical persons.
The author has served as an expert witness in a disability case on Asperger's syndrome.
Following is resource information on Asperger's Syndrome:
Asperger's and Girls, By Tony Atwood, Temple Grandin, Teresa Bolick and Catherine Faherty
Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, By Tony Atwood
Asperger's Syndrome and Homeschooling, By Phyllis L. Smith Asinyanbi
Hitchhiking Through Asperger's Syndrome, By Lisa Pyles
How to Help Your Child Who Has Asperger's Syndrome, By Phyllis L. Smith Asinyanbi
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Aspergers, By John Elder Robison
Tony Atwood’s website, Information from a world-renowned expert on Asperger's