Monday morning was unsettling for many moms and dads, as children across the country returned to school under the pall of Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. No matter how slim the odds of another attack, the horrific question clawed its way to the surface: What if some monster with an assault rifle storms my child’s school?
For parents like Hillary Toucey, this sort of primal fear is compounded by another, less far-fetched anxiety: What if someone gets it into his or her head that someday my child will become the kind of monster that would storm a school with an assault rifle?
A mother of three, Toucey has two sons who fall on the spectrum of autistic disorders. Her oldest, 12-year-old Jonah, has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a “high-functioning” form of autism that received a burst of unfortunate publicity this weekend when it was reported that Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza also suffered from the disorder.
Suddenly, Toucey found herself fielding phone calls from friends and acquaintances wondering about the link between Asperger’s and violent behavior. Postings on the LSU-themed message board she frequents were calling for Asperger’s individuals to be locked up. As for the sensationalistic media coverage: “I had to turn the news off. I wanted to punch people in the face, they were so ignorant,” she says. “Some psychiatrist was on CNN, making it sound like people with Asperger’s have violent outbursts all the time.”
This is, in fact, far from the case, say experts.
The vast majority of individuals with Asperger’s are “struggling with a significant disability and doing the best they can. They are not violent. They are not criminals,” says Dr. Fred Volkmar, director of the Child Study Center at Yale University’s school of medicine.
“Having any kind of chronic developmental trouble increases the likelihood of having other troubles,” acknowledges Volkmar, chief of child psychiatry at New Haven Hospital. But he notes that “in kids strictly diagnosed with Asperger’s, the most frequent thing you see is depression.” Unlike lower-functioning individuals, who are often not as aware of their surroundings, kids with Asperger’s “know they’re missing out. They just can’t figure out how to work within the system,” explains Volkmar. “The reality is that they are much more likely to be the butt of jokes or teased or the victim rather than the victimizer.”
“By definition, people with autism are not inclined to commit acts of violence,” says Peter Bell, an executive vice president with the advocacy group Autism Speaks and the father of a 19-year-old son on the spectrum. “It’s really important to note that having an autism diagnosis doesn’t make you the type of person to commit this type of crime.”
Like Toucey, Bell and others in the advocacy community were quick to push back against any suggestion that autism was at the root of Lanza’s rampage, issuing public statements and taking to the media ramparts, both new and old. Having the atrocity in Newtown connected in the public mind with Asperger’s has real repercussions for a population already struggling for acceptance and understanding, laments Bell.
“This is where we as a society get in trouble: when we’re trying to explain this type of thing—which is natural, of course,” he says. “If we’re too quick to judge, [we] have the potential to do a lot of harm to people who otherwise don’t need this, who are also innocent victims.”
That is precisely what Toucey worries about. “I sent the kids to school today a little nervous because I know Eli has had meltdowns in the classrooms before,” she says of her 8-year-old, whose disorder is more severe than his brother’s. Teachers without experience dealing with autism are already unsure of how to handle Eli, says Toucey. “Now, what if they think my kid is going to be a serial killer one day?”
“It is unfortunate that this is going to put negative mark on the community that they don’t need,” says Volkmar. The outcomes for children diagnosed with autism are dramatically improving, thanks in large part to early diagnosis and treatment, he observes. “We’ve done a better job of supporting them. We don’t want to retreat now.”
Toucey, an autism advocate in her home state of Louisiana, also worries about the broader implications. “It’s really scary to me to think that we work so hard to get a little bit of acceptance, and this will be a big step back.”
Her more immediate concern, however, is just getting her kids through the week. “I am anxious for the end of the day to see if anything was said,” she says. “I hope and pray they are safe and happy at school today. But I’m dusting off my boxing gloves just in case.”