The tragedy at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School has created heavy hearts throughout the nation. Parents can scarcely imagine the horror of losing a child and children now worry about their safety at school.
And everyone is asking why.
People want to know why shooter Adam Lanza, 20, would commit such an atrocity, killing innocent young children and the educators trying to protect them.
So investigators have conducted interviews and searched Lanza’s home for answers. And what they’ve found is a disturbed young man who may have been mentally ill.
Media outlets have repeatedly reported the fact that Lanza had Asperger’s syndrome, a typically high-functioning form of autism. And although Connecticut’s chief medical examiner has stated Asperger’s is not associated with violent behavior, some parents worry the negative spotlight on the syndrome will create a lasting stigma.
Parents of a Murrieta high school student with Asperger’s say they purposefully withheld that the shooter had Asperger’s from their son because they knew it would worry him.
The parents asked to remain nameless because they don’t want their son to be spotlighted.
“He doesn’t like having Asperger’s or being reminded of it,” his father said.
Both parents said none of the children they know with autisms, or Asperger’s specifically, have any violent tendencies. Most are very literal in their outlook, have high IQs and have some social issues.
The father said, “My son is 6 feet tall and 200 pounds but he won’t even squish a spider. He’s afraid to hurt a living thing.”
Both parents feel the focus on Asperger’s in the initial media reports on the shooter was “massively irresponsible.”
Tammy Wilson, CEO of Oak Grove Center in Murrieta, agrees Asperger’s is not associated with violent behavior, especially the type of pre-planned violence exhibited by Lanza.
“I feel bad for the parents of children with Asperger’s,” Wilson said. “These kids already have enough problems without putting that label on them, especially when it’s not accurate.”
Wilson said Asperger’s is on the higher-functioning side of the autism spectrum. Those with the syndrome are typically very bright, but they don’t socially connect well.
Oak Grove Center is a nonprofit residential, educational and therapeutic treatment center for children with a variety of psychological, social, emotional, behavioral, medical and neurological problems. The center has an autism program that currently has several children with Asperger’s syndrome.
The higher functioning students participate in the Interact Club, in which students fundraise and work with several nonprofit organizations, such as Michelle’s Place in Temecula.
“It’s a forum to gain empathy,” Wilson said. “One student in the club has gone from really not fitting in, with no friends, to feeling he’s doing something really important. It’s really made a difference for him.”
The students at Oak Grove range in age from 5 to 22.
Wilson said one of the things she found disturbing about Lanza’s history was that he was getting services and was monitored during high school. But when he became an adult, he aged out of those services.
Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was searching for help for her son before she was killed the morning of the shooting.
It has been reported that before her death, Nancy Lanza, felt she could not handle her son alone any longer and may have been petitioning for the legal right to commit him full time to a hospital or psychiatric facility.
For Inland resources, families may seek assistance from the Riverside County Department of Mental Health, which has programs that include crisis/inpatient support services, family support services and parent support services.
Community Connect’s 2-1-1 information line may be used as to find the best providers, programs and services to fit an individual need.
Comprehensive Autism Center serves San Diego and Riverside Counties and Inland Regional Center serves San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.
Wilson said early intervention for those with emotional, social, behavioral or psychological problems is very important.
“I can’t stress how important early intervention and focusing on keeping them connected is,” she said. “We work with clubs and try to find places they’ll learn they are important and have value.”
And, her experience with the parents of the children with Asperger’s and other forms of autism is very positive.
“They’re incredible,” Wilson said. “They’re involved with their kids and sophisticated in understanding the interventions they need. We work with them as a team.”
Jennifer Dean is a local writer and regular contributor to SWRNN.