Blaming Asperger's for Lanza's actions is damaging to other children. And it's wrong



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.

“It was very damaging and very misleading. In a way, people with Asperger’s are the opposite of psychopaths,” says mother Lisa Maree Domican, who blogs about autism based on personal experience. “Psychopaths are masters of reading visual cues and manipulating people – but they lack emotional empathy. People with autism disorders like Asperger’s feel empathy for others, but they have trouble reading the cues.”

Domican points out that although children with autism spectrum disorders may experience “meltdowns”, these tend to be short-lived, intense and aimless, more likely to harm the child than anyone else. “They would not be capable of the kind of cold, calculated planning that went into something like this.”

Shifting focus

Once the Asperger’s link had begun to be discredited in the media, the focus turned to a new target: Lanza’s mother.

Do a Google search for articles on Nancy Lanza, who was shot four times in the head as she slept on Friday, and you’ll discover she was a “prepper”, a “paranoid”, “gun-proud survivalist” who home-schooled her son, and had an “unhealthily close” relationship with him. One Australian website goes so far as to posit a theory on the shooting, claiming that she “may have triggered son Adam Lanza’s gun rampage”. There were also reports that Nancy Lanza was “friendly” and “well-liked”, but you had to dig to find them.

A search for articles on Peter Lanza paints a far more sympathetic picture of the gunman’s father. He is in “disbelief”, the headlines reveal; he is “heartbroken”; he only discovered about his son’s involvement in the shooting from a journalist. One CNN headline seems to sum it up: “Adam Lanza’s family: Mom liked parlor games, guns; dad, a tax exec, remarried”.

There is, clearly, no conspiracy at work here; just a crude and sometimes misogynistic clamouring for facts to make sense of an unimaginable tragedy.

It is unquestionably the case that something went very wrong inside the head of Adam Lanza. But to focus exclusively on what that might have been is hopeless, dangerous and wrong.

It is hopeless because mass shootings do not lend themselves to easy analysis, and we will very likely never know. It is dangerous because it increases the likelihood of copycat killings. And it is wrong because it draws attention away from the context in which this happened – a society in which procuring an assault rifle is not much more difficult than buying a jar of peanut butter.

But mostly it is wrong because the focus on a red herring such as Adam Lanza’s Asperger’s does untold damage to the efforts of millions of children with the same condition who may already be struggling to integrate into mainstream society.

“The worst part of all this media coverage is that people with Asperger’s are self-aware,” Domican says. “They know they are different; they often know why. They really don’t need the media to tell them they might grow up to become mass killers.”

Trish 'Ireland's answer to Carmela Soprano

So Love/Hate is on its way to the US, courtesy of the online TV service Hulu. Meanwhile, it has also been sold to Australia, South Korea, Scotland, New Zealand, Asia, and the Middle East.

Love/Hate is arguably the best thing the Irish television industry has produced. But how it will go down in a world conditioned by such Irish cultural representations as Riverdance and Mrs Brown’s Boys. The nearest we’ve got to preparing the rest of humanity for the likes of Nidge and Dazzler is Roddy Doyle’s Mr Burgess. Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own is a lot of things, but he’s no Danno.

Love/Hate has it all – edge-of-the-seat drama; moments of comedy and humanity; believable villains; strong female characters – all except rolling landscapes and ruddy-faced auld fellas. How is a world that has been saturated with The Gathering propaganda going to cope with the sight of Trish (right) – Ireland’s answer to Carmela Soprano – squatting over her toilet bowl? I can hardly wait.

A micro approach to longevity

A professor of biostatistics has come up with a way to calculate the effect of Christmas day on your likely lifespan. There’s always one, isn’t there? Prof David Spiegelhalter has just published his findings in the British Medical Journal. He claims to have worked out a way of calculating the effect on our longevity of those indulgences that make life bearable in units of “one microlife”, or 30-minute chunks for each day you live past the age of 35.

Smoking two cigarettes, taking two extra alcoholic drinks, eating a portion of red meat, being 5kg overweight, or watching two hours of television a day all result in the loss of one microlife – that’s half an hour a day. Alternatively, you can win back that microlife by taking a statin daily or sticking to just one alcoholic drink.

Alternatively, you could just take the advice of the sage centenarian interviewed in another newspaper recently. “I have kept to a strict, if large, ration” of alcohol every day, Walter James revealed. “For lunch, I have 90ml of dry sherry followed by a 330ml bottle of Peroni beer. At dinner my 90ml of whisky or gin is followed by 250ml of red wine.”

You all have a happy Christmas now.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.