the observatory

Lanza, autism, and violence

Critics try to stem media conjecture after Newtown shooting
December 17, 2012

As with so many senseless acts of violence— including the shootings in Aurora, CO, last summer and Tucson, AZ, the year before that—some media outlets haven’t been able to resist the temptation to speculate about the mental health of the young man who killed 27 people in Newtown, CT, on December 14.

This time, however, most of the conjecture has focused on reports that 20-year-old Adam Lanza had a form of autism, a developmental disorder that impairs social and communications skills. There are several reasons to be wary of this coverage, not least of which is the fact that the information is so far unconfirmed.

The New York Times reported on the day of the shooting that, “Several [of Lanza’s former high school classmates] said in separate interviews that it was their understanding that he had a developmental disorder. They said they had been told that the disorder was Asperger’s syndrome, which is considered a high functioning form of autism.” Around the same time, Fox News, The Atlantic, and other outlets said that ABC News had reported Lanza’s brother, Ryan, told authorities that Lanza was autistic or had “Asperger Syndrome and ‘a personality disorder.’”

The ABC News report to which those sites linked contains no such information.

So, it’s unclear whether Lanza had autism at all—and let’s not forget the many erroneous reports that have already come out of this tragedy, from the media pegging Ryan Lanza as the gunman and broadcasting his Facebook photos on national television, to later-debunked assertions that Lanza’s mother worked and was killed at the elementary school where the murders took place.

Lack of solid confirmation that Lanza had autism (from his physician, for instance) hasn’t stopped some news outlets from offering misleading speculation that the disorder can foster violent behavior. The worst offender may have been The Telegraph in the UK. After echoing the unverified report about autism, the paper launched into irresponsible postulation about “sociopathy,” “criminal behavior,” and attempts “to escape feeling empty or emotionally void,” before dropping this disingenuously balanced gem:

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Those on the autistic spectrum have a more limited emotional range and can miss social cues, making it more difficult for them to communicate and feel empathy with others. Difficulties communicating can cause frustration, which can spill over into aggression.

Several studies have found that violence and criminal behaviour are no more common in those diagnosed with autism than they are in the general population.

It was such horrid reporting that led the Autism Research Institute, a nonprofit research and support network, to issue this statement on Saturday:

The autism community has long labored toward building understanding, awareness, and trust within communities throughout the United States and the world. As adults with autism living productive, peaceful lives, we urge the media and professionals who participate in speculative interviews about the motives of the accused shooter to refrain from misleading comments about autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. The eyes of the world are on this wrenching tragedy – with 1 in 88 now diagnosed, misinformation could easily trigger increased prejudice and misunderstanding. Let us all come together and mourn for the families and exercise the utmost care in discussions of how and why it occurred.

A few reporters have also tried to stem the tide of misconception about autism. In a blog post reprinted by Slate, Emily Willingham, a journalist who focuses on biology and whose son is autistic, explained that “empathetic ability comes in two forms”—cognitive empathy, where a person recognizes the emotions of another, and emotional empathy, where a person feels the emotions of another. According to research cited by Willingham, those with autism tend to struggle with the first, but not the second. Psychopaths, on the other hand, tend to struggle with the second, but not the first.

A Los Angeles Times article headlined, “Speculation over autism, but shooter’s ‘why’ has no easy answer,” stressed in its opening paragraphs that while shyness and awkwardness are often traits of autism, “a propensity for premeditated violence is not.” Reporter Alan Zarembo interviewed several experts who “said that at most, autism would have played a tangential role in the mass shooting — if Lanza had it at all.”

Likewise, New York’s Poughkeepsie Journal, whose offices are an hour’s drive from Newtown, contacted experts at the Anderson Center for Autism in neighboring Staatsburg, who threw cold water on hype surrounding the shooting.

“That’s such a far-fetched connection,” Sudi Kash, Anderson’s director of clinical studies, told reporter Nina Schutzman. “With Asperger’s, there might be social interaction or communication difficulties, to varying degrees of severity. But this?”

Unfortunately, the more far-fetched an idea, the more appealing it often is to the media, and while it’s natural to ask questions about a gunman’s mental health in the wake of a shooting spree, some outlets inevitably reach too far.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.