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The Dark Side of Asperger’s

By
February 1, 2013

Adam Lanza may have had Asperger's, a condition our author lives with. Marginalizing him—whether he’s 'one of us' or not—only further compounds the tragedy.

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Image courtesy the Valley Independent Sentinel

Each time a horrific crime is in the news, commentators characterize the perpetrator as “the madman” or “the deranged individual,” or announce that “a person suffering from mental illness” walked into the school… the mall… the movie theater…. Each time I hear that, I cringe, not because of any sympathy for the guilty party or because it is a slur against the mentally disabled, but because of the smugness of the speaker.

To call someone “deranged” or “mad” is to marginalize them, to declare that they are “not one of us.” Indeed, it is to say that he or she is not really human at all. As an adult with Asperger’s syndrome who has been marginalized all her life, I feel very uncomfortable when anyone, even someone unsavory, is summarily written out of the human race. I wonder if these sanctimonious pundits realize that the most devastating instances of mass carnage (a.k.a. “wars”) have been planned and executed by neurotypicals just like themselves who were perfectly sane—unless you consider “drunk with power” a cognizable mental disorder.

Recently it was reported that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Connecticut elementary school massacre, may have had Asperger’s syndrome. Now it is the autism community’s turn to recoil in horror and declare that no, he could not have possibly been one of us; the Autism Society has issued a press release stating that “it is imperative to remove autism from this tragic story.”

Alex Plank, autism self-advocate and founder of WrongPlanet.net has written for CNN, pleading that we leave autism out of the discussion of these mass shootings and arguing that “the speculations are needless, untrue and hurtful.” The well-known author Joe McGinniss, father of an aspie son, told the New York Times, “the suggestion that Asperger’s might be a clue as to why this happened is offensive to me.” The Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE) complains that “it is painful and frightening to feel associated by virtue of a diagnosis with someone who has committed such a horrific crime.”

It must have been something else, Asperger’s advocates reason, as though this will protect us, shovel him off into the ranks of another persecuted minority.

A website for families affected by high-functioning autism boldly declared in a press release: “We at MAAP wish to state that the vast majority of individuals with autism spectrum challenges (this includes Asperger [sic] syndrome) are not capable of the detailed planning and completion of the diabolical plans reportedly involved in this tragedy.”

“There is really no clear association between Asperger’s and violent behavior,” echoes psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. It must have been something else, Asperger’s advocates reason, as though this will protect us. As if this will shovel him off into the ranks of another, persecuted minority.

The community has reacted as though there were in fact a definitive “something” which would compel a person not only to pump four bullets into the head of his mother as she lay in bed, but to then pack up the car with military gear, drive about five miles to the elementary school, and methodically gun down twenty first graders and a handful of adults who got in his way. Perhaps they envision a demon, riding alongside him, loading ammo into those high-capacity magazines?

Rather than rushing to publish disclaimers, is it not possible that, through this horrific exception to the general rule that autistics only harm themselves and those close to them, we might learn something about ourselves?

Amid the rush of autism advocates, educators, and experts trying to disassociate themselves from Lanza, the remarks of Dr. John Constantino, an autism specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, could easily be lost. Constantino argues on the website of the Los Angeles Times that “the social detachment and withdrawal associated with [Asperger’s] can accentuate other psychiatric conditions that are connected to violence.”

The details of Adam Lanza’s formal diagnosis (if such a diagnosis is even possible) may never be known. It does appear, however, that Lanza’s behavior, up to the date of the shooting, was very aspie-like: he was shy, remote, highly intelligent, but also fidgety, nervous, and always alone. So we will assume that Lanza likely did fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, and we may further assume that, like many adolescent and adult aspies—myself included—he may have suffered from comorbid disorders such as depression and anxiety. While I am not saying these conditions caused him to commit such a despicable and irrational crime, arguing that his autism had nothing to do with it may be a stretch. Rather than rushing to publish disclaimers, is it not possible that, through this horrific exception to the general rule that autistics only harm themselves and those close to them, we might learn something about ourselves?

I knew someone who killed his mother. I lived next door to his family for many years. Jason was not on the spectrum and, as far as I know, he had no mental disorders. He was just an ordinary kid. Yes, as a teenager he was a bit wild, but, by the time he reached his early twenties, the young man appeared to have turned his life around. He took responsibility for his life; he dressed well and was gainfully employed. In truth, I admired him immensely. Like many aspies, I had experienced a world of difficulty making the transition to adulthood and foundered about for many years in a limbo of dysfunctionality.

The young man disappeared from the neighborhood. I supposed he had gotten his own place, moved to another town, perhaps even married. His mother told me no, that he was jailed on a drug charge and asked me to say a prayer for his release. Eventually Jason was freed, and one night, apparently in an alcohol-fueled rage, he bludgeoned his mother and stepfather to death. He’s back in prison now, locked away for life.

When I heard what Jason had done, I not only mourned for the victims, I shuddered, crossed myself and murmured, There but for the grace of God…. This was the kind of tragedy that I could relate to as an autistic individual. Had I not myself, in times of stress, flown into blind rages, and lashed out at loved ones or anyone who might be nearby? Had I not lost control of my behavior and caused damage and harm? I had never flipped out to such an extent, of course, but the realization of what rage might do caused me to reexamine my own tendencies and thenceforth I held the reins a little tighter whenever my emotions threatened to run away with me.

Unlike Jason, Adam Lanza’s criminal rampage was not a crime of passion; he did not just “snap” one night and strike out blindly. Lanza’s planning was very un-aspie-like. It took deliberation and a degree of cold-bloodedness to assemble that combat gear, a utility vest, and numerous clips of ammunition, to pack that arsenal into a family car and drive to town, not aimlessly, but to the local elementary school. Individuals on the autistic spectrum rarely commit preplanned, premeditated violence against strangers. That is why so few autistics go for soldiers. We on the autism spectrum are inner-directed, as the very word “autism” implies (literally, “self-ism”).

About a week after the incident, I met with my therapist. She suggested that perhaps Adam Lanza was envious of the children. Perhaps he believed that he had been deprived of his own childhood, perhaps he had felt shunned by his own classmates and locked out of their world, and the very existence of these present-day first graders wrenched his heart with excruciating pain.

I recollected my own past. It was not my childhood that I had been robbed of, but adolescence. The summer I turned thirteen, my parents sold our house and moved to a rustic area in upstate New York. Life as I knew it was ended. Left behind were my childhood friends, my school, three grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles. Once a spunky street urchin, I suddenly found myself abandoned on the frozen tundra with no one to talk to and nowhere to go, unbearably lonely and homesick. High school was a nightmare from start to finish. I was bussed to a large, impersonal campus full of bullies and strangers. My grades, which had once been exceptional, plummeted. I made no new friends to replace those I had lost, nor did I have an adult mentor. There were a few good teachers there who might have taken me under their wings, but they were overwhelmed and far too busy. My parents were convinced that I was only making believe, pretending to fall apart in order to punish them for tearing me away from my hometown. Dragging myself out of bed in the morning was sheer agony; sleep, my only solace. All the while I was well aware that, all around me, the other students were having fun, dating, going to parties, dances and football games. It’s not that I did not want to join them; my nose was pressed to the windowpane.

Long after those days were past, when I was in my twenties and thirties—and, yes, in my forties—my heart would sink whenever I happened upon a group of teenagers chatting, flirting, and enjoying themselves. An unreasonable envy would seize me, and I would curse them under my breath and wish them misfortune. I knew that my reaction was irrational, that these young people had done me no harm, that they were not the bullies who had tormented me and locked me out of their world. Logic could not dispel the anger and pain that seethed within.

Aspies are prey animals, said Tony Attwood…Wounded prey may, however, grow desperate and strike back.

I might have wished them misfortune, but would I have ever taken steps to inflict it? Of course not. I turned and walked away. If I came upon the teens in a diner, I got up and left. If we were on a train, I moved to another car. Then I did what aspies commonly do. I turned and sunk my claws into my own heart, scorpion-like. I gave myself up to the slow suicide of desolation and despair.

If Adam Lanza had only destroyed himself, no one would have noticed. He would have silently departed this world, leaving “few footprints in life,” as the New York Times put it. If he had only killed his mother, well-meaning people would have shaken their heads and said exactly what they said about my neighbor, that here was another troubled young man who “snapped.” It is because Lanza exploded in such an unusual, deliberate and almost apocalyptic way, that we are so shaken. If we allow that Lanza might have been on the austistic spectrum it might help us take a candid look at the dark side of living on the spectrum.

Aspies are prey animals, said Tony Attwood at an Asperger’s conference in 2012. We are much more likely to be victims than villains. Wounded prey may, however, grow desperate and strike back. A lifetime of being bullied, rejected, and relegated to the periphery of life can give rise to anger and bitter fantasies of revenge, especially perhaps among lonely young autistics that have grown up in a culture where violence is glamorized and who may turn to perfecting their skills at violent video games in lieu of a social life.

Advocates prefer not to address these negative aspects of autism. The reason for this is easy to understand. First of all, scare no one. Better to portray us as shy, gentle, quirky geniuses. This is a safe depiction, but perhaps not complete. Yes, we want acceptance, but must we sacrifice some inconvenient facts, and pretend all aspies are saints? The one who is not a saint, who carries the scars of unbearable pain, must hide himself in shame.

G

Charli Devnet is an adult with Asperger’s syndrome, diagnosed late in life. Her story is the first chapter in Dr. Temple Grandin’s book Different… Not Less, (Future Horizons 2012). She is the author of an upcoming memoir, The Snow Queen’s Daughter, to be published by Bramble Books in 2013. Devnet is a tour guide at the historic Rockefeller estate, Kykuit (in Dutch: “lookout” or “high place”). She lives in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, with two cats and a pony, Silverado.

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16 comments for The Dark Side of Asperger’s

  1. Comment by Paula C. Durbin-Westby on February 1, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Unprovable peculation like this, that there is a “dark side” of Asperger’s, might get you some notice on the Internet, but it will cause actual Autistic people more problems. I have written extensively on this topic on my blog, been interviewed by the Washington Post and NBC TV in Richmond, VA. There is NO LINK between Asperger’s and violence, but if you feel that YOU personally are a danger to society, please get help.

  2. Comment by CJ on February 2, 2013 at 3:54 am

    I found this article to be very insightful. I have been advocating a similar position since Newtown, only to be met with defensiveness by some in the Aspergers community who refused to entertain the possibility that social rejection and rage has the potential to take an ugly turn in anyone, given the right circumstances. Much like our nation’s politicians, it seems that the Aspergers community wants to distance itself from those with whom they once shared common ground, now that society regards those individuals as pariahs.

  3. Comment by Paula C. Durbin-Westby on February 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Those people (mass murderers) are pariahs in *any* society. That doesn’t mean that a person with Asperger’s could not commit a crime, and more than it means that *you* can’t commit a crime. EVERY community distances itself from heinous criminals. In this case, the heinous criminal was said to have Asperger’s. Since most of us do not have anything like murderous thoughts (and I have never had the kinds of thoughts the author here does so find it difficult to believe that “most” of us do (!), we naturally distance ourselves. It’s human nature. And the people who are “normal” distance themselves by pinning it on autism, or mental illness, or abnormal childhood, or whatever they can find to create that distance. Mass murderers= NOT most of us, and not “our community.”

  4. Comment by Catherine Fitzpatrick on February 4, 2013 at 12:00 am

    I think that when so many people have been massacred, and defenseless innocent little children, we have to keep an open mind and ask all questions. It may well be autism spectrum co-morbid with other ills like bi-polar or schizophrenia.

    What a lot of the hero-parents defiantly trying to turn people away from scrutinizing Asperger-‘s-related violence don’t seem to want to admit is that *they* are the force that is keeping their children from becoming destructive. *They* intervene a hundred times a day in their care-giving. *They* manage and organize their children’s time, schooling, medical care, with enormous sacrifice.

    But not every parent is a hero like them. Some need respite and don’t get it, they are single parents, like Nancy Lanza. Some just don’t cope. Then society is at danger, because there isn’t the heroic buffer.

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state/2012/12/are-aspies-and-their-parents-in-denial-about-the-connection-to-violence.html

    Instead of arguing endlessly about whether or not people on the autism spectrum are violent or not, I think it’s better to concede that some are, and then move to the next more pertinent debate. If/since there is a connection, what is our public policy? And the answer isn’t to comb through the autistic population and incarcerate everyone or too many people; the answer isn’t to take away people’s civil rights. The answer is only more care, not less. More human institutions where people can more easily get residential treatment where families and communities are integrated with care — rather than dumping the dangerously mental ill out on to the community where some end up pushing people in front of subway trains. More care doesn’t mean less rights.

  5. Comment by Cindy on February 9, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    To me, it seems a dangerous practice to teach a young man to vent his emotions with a gun. Could such a thing even be controversial? Apparently it can be: http://www.sodahead.com/united-states/is-gun-range-therapy-a-bad-idea/question-3503125/

  6. Comment by mom on February 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    As a parent of a child on the spectrum, it does send chills that there is an association with ASD and Adam Lanza – not because of the possibility that someone with ASD can do this, but the ignorance of people towards the ASD community. Nancy and Adams father failed as parents, ASD or not. With the amount of money she had she could have offered her son so many more positive choices. This woman got almost 300k a year in support. The father lost contact when he got remarried(Adam stopped speaking with him), the brother didn’t see him either. This person was clearly in pain, and didn’t get the help he needed. Very tragic.

  7. Comment by Rachel Ann on February 28, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful article. I recently watched the Frontline episode about Newtown, and I thought it lacked the psychological depth and questioning you present here. I appreciate your sensitive handling and questioning of how Adam Lanza’s possible experience as a young man living with Asperger’s, without the community and connection he needed, could lead to acting out as you suggest. I think you make it clear that it’s less about the psychological condition, and more so about the resources and support available to anyone struggling with a psychological disorder and not receiving proper care. Thank you again for sharing your voice here.

  8. Comment by Lindsay on March 3, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    Hi Charli,

    A lot of your article rang true for me*, but I was a little confused about a couple of dueling ideas in the piece. You seem to suggest both that this kind of ruthless, remorseless violence is an aspect of autism, but also that it’s a possible response to a lifetime of exclusion and isolation. Obviously being autistic means that it’s a lot more likely that you’ll experience those things, but as far as I know we don’t react to them in a fundamentally different way than most people do.

    I guess for me it seems like people like this, who do unfathomably evil things, *can* fuel introspection, but I guess I would locate the metaphorical “demon” in human nature, not anything particular to autistics. Because you said it yourself: tons and tons of completely normal people have done evil things, too. And you’re right: autistic people aren’t saints! We’re no better than anyone else; I just don’t think we’re any worse either, and that the worst in us is akin to the worst in them, not anything that’s ours alone.

    *I also get a strong sense of “there but for the grace of God go I ..” from these stories, because a lot of times I do see a lot of myself in the killers. But I would never kill anyone, so I go on to wonder what it is that made these men, who are/were like me in a lot of ways, make a choice that I can’t even fathom.

  9. Comment by Bella cruse on March 4, 2013 at 2:49 am

    In the recent survey, it has been found that around 20% of the people are suffering from Asperger and especially the children are the victims of this dangerous disease. It is not so that it cannot be cured but with utter care and monitoring it can be possible to recover from this disease.
    People often think that it is a contagious disease and they even don’t like to talk with the person having it. It is a serious matter of concern. I am shocked that why people are still unaware the facts of Asperger.
    Reference: – http://cluas.ie/children/aspergers-syndrome

  10. Comment by Lamonte Johnson on May 27, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    Labeling is so misguided. The naming of post traumatic stress as a disorder is an example. It s not a disorder in my opinion, but a natural mental and physical behavior due to past experiences.

  11. Comment by tim on June 30, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Comment by Bella cruse..

    Aspergers is not a disease you moron.

  12. Comment by Bert Lancaster on July 23, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    I think that the article, and most of the commenters, are missing a vital point. I do think it is wrong to infer, as the ‘smug’ media pundits did, that people on the autism spectrum have more likelihood of committing violent acts. But it is likely that anyone who is marginalized, for whatever reason – including autism of some degree – could see themselves as being victimized and some final perceived injustice could then cause them to flip and commit some act to right the wrongs that have been heaped against them. Whether or not a degree of planning would go into it depends very much on the individual. And that being said, a society which deliberately allows the means for violence to easily exist in the community is simply begging for trouble.

  13. Comment by Grainne Gillespie on December 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Paula C. Durbin-Westby, there is no link between Aspergers and violence?

    Then explain how I routinely got into fights at school and once punched my father in the face?

  14. Comment by Tyler on April 20, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Maybe he had Aspergers maybe he had a lot of things. It seems though this need to put some label on him precisely comes from a desire to put him on the outside of the human species and of this sick society and come up with a logical explanation. Well he had this Aspergers thing. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. What bothers me is the tendency to slap a label or speculate about someone having Aspergers because they are exhibiting some antisocial or undesirable behavior. I have seen these blogs on the internet where women are like my husband seems cold distant and selfish you think he has Aspergers. Why the hell does that make you think he has Aspergers, maybe he’s just cold distant and selfish, or maybe she is who the hell knows. Theoretically it’s supposed to be a genetic condition right, not some kind of stereotyped subculture of loners and “losers”.

  15. Comment by Anonymous on May 1, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    People with Asperger syndrome, and an the spectrum in general need a cure, not just more care or resources. A cure, as simple as that! They need acceptance, and integration with the society, not further isolation or institutionalization. There is a conspiracy site where the author suggests it can be possible that this young man may not have even committed the massacre and instead was killed alongside his mother before this horrific crime even happened. So this slaughter of the innocents may have been orchestrated in order to take away people’s rights to own guns, or put severe limits on gun ownership in this country, as well as portrait people with this diagnosis as inherently violent and possibly with the aim to curtail their rights, which is outrageous. One could argue that people with this diagnosis not only should have the same right to own guns as everyone else, but need them even more so, since such people are more likely to be an easy target for all kinds of criminals and scammers, particularly if they live alone.

  16. Comment by John on July 9, 2014 at 1:29 am

    im gonna say this and i wanna know your thoughts but this boy was obviously demonized before this most of the aspies are no girlfriend no friends no sexuality of any kind, something i wanna put on the table most people don’t think of but lack of sexuality, (not ness intercourse) kissing ect all that………….. can cause serious mental disorders esp long term he also seemed isolated which is a another damaging thing to mental health most people dont know this but isolation and all it brings is like a slow poison, just gets worse and worse. i think lack of sexuality, friends and being isolation was like the stack of issues i think the lack of family support is what made him the monster, he wish he never did this, rip children rip lanza. i wish this madness would stop.

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