Asperger’s syndrome is not at the root of massacre

 

The Sacramento Bee

Whatever led Elliot Rodger to kill six people, Asperger’s syndrome was not the cause.

Like Adam Lanza, the man responsible for the Newtown school massacre, Elliot Rodger, the man who killed six students in Isla Vista, Calif., had been labeled as having Asperger’s syndrome.

Let’s not connect violence with individuals who may be on the autism spectrum. There is no diagnostic reason for doing so. Violent behavior, or psychopathology marked by paranoid delusions or mania, does not appear in the most recent, or any, diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders.

However, with the recent announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the prevalence for autism spectrum disorder is now 1 in 68 live births, it stands to reason that, rarely, a person who commits a crime might be on the spectrum. Persons who commit such crimes may also be black or brown or white or tall or thin or poor or rich or of any religion or political persuasion.

Asperger’s syndrome is now subsumed under the broader label of autism spectrum disorder, although some individuals prefer to use it to refer to people who have an IQ in the typical to high-functioning range and who have never had major language deficits.

That said, a high percentage of individuals with autism spectrum disorders do have accompanying mental illness or psychopathology. Most are characterized as having externalizing disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or internalizing disorders such as depression or anxiety. As children with autism spectrum disorders age, internalizing disorders become more prevalent. These disorders — in conjunction with the poor social understanding and unusual repetitive behaviors, interests or activities of the youths with autism spectrum disorders — all too often lead to bullying or social rejection by their peers.

What is relevant to the deaths in California, Connecticut and elsewhere, is that the perpetrators were reported to have been isolated or lonely while growing up, or otherwise marginalized by their childhood or adolescent peers. The stark and foreboding presentations of these youths have not received adequate attention from teachers and mental-health professionals.

According to statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20-somethings have the highest rate of mental illness among any adult age groups. Many young people don’t recognize or try to ignore the early stages of mental illness, so they also have the lowest rate of use of mental-health services. And while parents may be consciously or unconsciously aware of their child’s situation, they are hardly objective and — understandably — not likely to expect their own child to suddenly take the lives of many others.

So where do we go from here? There are at least three healthy alternatives we could adopt. The first would be to recognize that marginalizing and bullying children is wrong, and that it begins in the early school years. Indeed, a 5-year-old boy in my own work with children on the autism spectrum said: “School is the meanest place on Earth.”

Teachers and other school professionals must foster more-inclusive school communities and nurture acceptance and tolerance for differences.

There is ample research to suggest that the feeling of belonging is important to psychological well-being. Researchers have found that students with a higher sense of school belonging experienced lower depression, social rejection and subsequent school problems. Teachers, school psychologists and other school specialists need better training in how to spot children at risk.

Second, we need wider and broader access to child mental-health services in this country. This means better integration of the mental-health system with the public school system and, at times, the legal authorities. It also means providing informed care to all youths at risk regardless of family financial resources.

Third, we need to avoid the mistake of confusing correlation with causation.

Asperger’s syndrome, if this was indeed an accurate diagnosis for Elliot Rodger, had nothing to do with his crimes. There is no simple cause for the type of behavior that took place. There are multiple causes — family, school, personality, mental illness, life events — that interact and result in violence. We need to understand better how our systems of care could have missed the early warning signs.

Jan Blacher is a professor at UC Riverside and the director of the SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center at the Graduate School of Education.

©2014 The Sacramento Bee

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Polling trends that matter

    Recent polling for the 2014 midterms and beyond is plentiful but not always illuminating. There are two exceptions to this: polls that show a consensus for a trend/wave election and dramatic movement toward a particular candidate.

  • Why the impeachment chatter continues

    If Republicans want to know why Democrats are talking incessantly about impeachment, even fundraising off the possibility, they need only look to themselves. The GOP leadership has resisted every opportunity to kill the idea. Sure, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called it “all a scam started by Democrats at the White House,” before adding, “We have no plans to impeach the president. We have no future plans.” But that’s cold comfort given his use of the present tense and his demonstrated inability to keep his calamitous caucus in line.

  • A GOP ultimatum to Vlad

    With the party united, the odds are now at least even that the GOP will not only hold the House but also capture the Senate in November.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category