Sandy Hook Tragedy: No Link Between Asperger’s and Violent Behavior

How do you explain the unexplainable?

Many are trying to do just this as we struggle to understand what could have driven 20-year-old Adam Lanza to kill his mother and then go to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary and kill 26 others.

Sources close to the Lanza family have said that Adam Lanza had Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder with the spectrum of autism, although official confirmation of this has not been announced.

It is known that Adam was very bright, but also just as shy and socially awkward. He had few, if any, friends and would sometimes isolate himself in his bedroom. He had never gotten into trouble with the law. His high school assigned a counselor to him, not because they feared he was a danger to anyone, but because there were concerns that he might be harmed by others.

Even if the diagnosis of Asperger’s is correct, is this an explanation for the horror that unfolded in Newtown?

Experts in Autism Spectrum Disorders say no.

Psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Associated Press:

There really is no clear association between Asperger’s and violent behavior.

In fact, because those with Asperger’s tend to be very focused on rules,  Laugeson stated that they also tend to be very law-abiding.

Psychologist Eric Butter, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio points out that although some aggressive behavior, such as pushing, shoving or shouting may occur more often in those with autism, “we are not talking about the kind of planned and intentional type of violence we have seen at Newtown.”

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder which is part of the Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – a group of neurological conditions characterized by a greater or lesser degree of impairment in communication and social skills, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior.

Individuals with AS are differentiated from others with autism in that they retain their early language  and cognitive skills, and tend to be less severely impaired than those with autism.

Like those with autism, those with AS tend to be socially awkward, have difficulty with changes in routine, have clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements, and engage in repetitive routines or rituals.

The most distinguishing symptom of AS is an individual’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other. They frequently have such expertise in this topic, and speak with such formal speech patterns, that they seem like little professors. Children with AS are isolated because of their poor social skills and narrow interests.

It should be noted that diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome will be removed from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  (DSM-V) due out in May 2013. The DSM is “the bible” of recognized mental health conditions guide and created by the American Psychiatric Association to assist mental health professionals and government agencies. Asperger’s will no longer be considered a separate diagnosis but rather part of the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis.

Dr. Laugeson and others believe what happened in Newtown is more likely to be due to some other kind of mental health condition like depression or anxiety rather than Asperger’s.

Individuals with Asperger’s and their families already have enough stigma to deal with. Being looked at as potential violent mass murderers shouldn’t be added to their burden.


Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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