Making Meaning: The Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School
When incomprehensible things happen – like the shooting of 20 innocent children and 6 caring adults – people try to make meaning of the event. Since we know so little about the shooter, the media was quick to place blame on his alleged condition of Asperger’s Syndrome (high functioning autism). We may never know his motives or much about his history, but we can clarify some misinformation and take action rather than blame.
- Autism is a developmental disability which is a chronic condition due to mental and/or physical impairment. It is defined as a neurological disorder that begins during childhood and usually lasts throughout life. Other developmental disabilities include mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, learning disability and ADHD.
- Individuals who have a developmental disability may also have mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Autism is not a mental illness which is a term that refers to a broad range of mental and emotional conditions that can occur at any age and can be treated through psychiatric intervention.
- There is no research evidence linking autism and violent acts; in fact people on the autism spectrum demonstrate less aggression than other individuals such as those with a history of alcohol and substance abuse (Autism Speaks Research). Individuals with autism do exhibit challenging behavior but it is typically reactive; examples include temper tantrums and self-injurious behavior such as head banging or biting. Social and communication issues are not associated with violent behavior.
We cannot make generalizations based on labels. The shootings have been brought into family and therapeutic conversations. For parents who have a child with autism, there is a particular rawness to the discussions because they understand how parents may not know their child. In our family therapy sessions with parents of children with autism, our clients express great empathy for the shooter’s parents, and concerns about negative fallout from misleading comments linking autism and violence.
At Ackerman, team members from the Resilient Families: Children with Special Needs project offer family therapy services and parent discussion groups to families who have children with developmental disabilities. In addition, we join the call for action and advocacy to improve mental health and educational services for children with significant impairments. Our efforts reach out into community schools and agencies where our project team conducts professional workshops to increase the quality of family-centered services.
Judy Grossman, Director of the Resilient Families: Children with Special Needs Project