In light of the tragic events in Newtown, Conn., it has come to light through the media that the gunman was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and an unknown psychiatric disorder, even though these diagnoses have not been officially confirmed.
Formerly known as Asperger's disorder, Asperger's syndrome is a developmental disorder falling within the autism spectrum.
<NO1>It is important to note that in the next addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, <NO><NO1>Asperger's<NO><NO1> Disorder will be eliminated and reclassified under the general term "<NO><NO1>Autism Spectrum Disorder,"<NO><NO1> which may change how those individuals with Asperger's <NO><NO1>receive services and treatment.
<NO>The typical person with Asperger's syndrome may have difficulty with eye contact or with navigating the waters of casual conversation. Many have special interests such as an enthusiasm for war history and steers every discussion back to World War II. They may speak in a monotone voice and may not understand sarcasm or humor. They embrace rules and routines of every day life and sometimes have difficulty with change. They have a tough time with nonverbal forms of communication including facial expressions, body postures or gestures. Individuals with Asperger's syndrome have issues with empathy, but they do not lack it. They struggle with expressing empathy and regulating emotions in general.
The primary areas of impairment for those with Asperger's syndrome are social skills and interaction and communication.
All of this is to say that it is not at all associated with the kind of violence that occurred on Dec. 14.
Asperger's is a developmental disorder. It is not a mental illness. It is also not an emotional or behavioral disorder. It is irresponsible to speculate that a developmental disability was a contributing factor in a mass murder.
"There really is no clear association between Asperger's and violent behavior," psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Associated Press.
The premise that individuals with Asperger's syndrome are predisposed to violence and/or criminal behavior has been investigated but is not supported by data. It is actually more the case though that individuals with Asperger's are targets of violent behavior rather than the perpetrators.
It is important to note though that individuals with Asperger's syndrome and all individuals on the autism spectrum are more prone to emotional aggression and outbursts and tantrums due to overstimulation and sensory overload. This type of aggression is a relatively spontaneous, reactive, quick burst of aggression usually toward themselves, other individuals in close proximity or against property in arm's reach.
It is not cold, calculated and methodical in the way the gunman carried out the heinous acts against the adults and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
While the motive for this crime is still unknown and may never be fully understood, what is clear is that Asperger's syndrome cannot be blamed, and it would be unfortunate to vilify a community of individuals because of the action of one person.
I hope children and adults with Asperger's will not bear the burden of the misinformed association of Asperger's syndrome and violence and avoid the stigma of people and turning back the clock on any progress of acceptance, compassion and understanding made so far.
<i>Linda Walsh is a licensed marriage family therapist and the clinical director at LifeWorks of Sonoma County, a nonprofit mental health agency in Santa Rosa. She is also program director of Transitions@LifeWorks, a program that provides academic, career and emotional support to adults with Asperger's syndrome.</i>