Blaming Asperger's for Lanza's actions is damaging to other children. And it's wrong
Compiled by JENNIFER O'CONNELL
It’s been five days since the shooting at the school in Newton, Connecticut and by now, you may have begun to make up your mind about why it happened.
You might have read all the news reports, and decided that Adam Lanza’s Asperger’s syndrome was to blame. Or perhaps you think it was his parents’ divorce; his love of violent video games; or his mother’s strange notions about homeschooling, gun ownership and “prepping” for a future Armageddon.
You might as well blame the brand of breakfast cereal he ate, or the weather, or the fact that he took the bus to school instead of walking, because there are really only two certainties in the aftermath of a tragedy like this one. The first is that almost everything you read about the killer in the days afterwards is likely to be misleading or wrong.
The second is that there is almost never a single, easily-identifiable cause.
The first truism of mass shootings was brought starkly into focus last Friday, when, in the initial, frenzied hunt for facts, even the gunman’s identity got mistaken. For a few hours, Lanza’s entirely blameless older brother Ryan was identified as the perpetrator by news organisations around the world, until he eventually took to his Facebook page, where he wrote: “F**k you CNN it wasn’t me” and “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME”.
You might imagine that, having got it so spectacularly wrong once, the media might have been loath to jump to conclusions. But then you’d be underestimating the very human compulsion to impose some kind of narrative order on tragic events.
The FBI, the World Health Organisation, and the authors of several worldwide academic studies have all tried, and failed, to isolate common denominators in mass shootings – beyond the fact that the perpetrator is usually male and that, once they have decided to use one, they can get their hands on a gun.
It’s not a lot to go on. And so the media fills in the blanks, hunting for causes, for some hint of otherness that makes “them” different from “us”.
In the case of Adam Lanza, his Asperger’s diagnosis initially seemed to offer itself up as exactly that, fitting neatly with the “troubled loner” hypothesis this kind of story begs. “Adam Lanza Asperger’s syndrome: Was the shooter mentally disturbed?” blared one headline. “Asperger’s, guns and divorce: what we know about Adam Lanza,” ran another.
More thoughtful pieces emerged in recent days, accurately pointing out that children with Asperger’s may have poor social skills and have trouble communicating, but they are not typically killers, or even prone to violence. Some of these articles stated that Lanza also suffered from a “personality disorder”. But by then, the link with Asperger’s had already been made, and it made for a neater headline.