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Expert To Newtown Massacre Commission: No Link Between Autism, Violence

Adam Lanza seen in 2005 at the age of 13. (Credit: CBS News)

Adam Lanza seen in 2005 at the age of 13. (Credit: CBS News)

HARTFORD, Conn. (CBSNewYork/AP) — An expert on Friday told a commission looking into the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. that there is no data linking autism with increased violent criminal behavior.

“Having autism, having an autism spectrum disorder, having Asperger’s syndrome does not mean you are likely to commit a violent crime,” said Matthew Lerner, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University.

Lerner was among a group of experts who testified Friday about the autism spectrum and programs currently available to help autistic people function better in society. The commission is considering whether the state’s mental health programs, particularly in the schools, are adequate, among other things.

On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, 20, opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 first graders and six educators. Lanza, who had killed his mother earlier in the day, later committed suicide.

Documents recently released by the state police show a Yale professor had diagnosed Lanza in 2006 with profound autism spectrum disorder, “with rigidity, isolation, and a lack of comprehension of ordinary social interaction and communications,” while also displaying symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Lerner said there are traits associated with autism that often explain behavior when those on the spectrum come into contact with the legal system. Those include impulsive and compulsive behavior and the inability to understand social motives and emotional situations.

A person with autism may, for example, take a neighbor at their word when told to drop by or call “any time”. So when they call at 3 a.m., 3:30 a.m. and again at 4 a.m., they don’t understand they are doing something wrong, he said.

“There is certainly no association between any of the features that we know about autism and the kind of planful mass murder as discussed here, that precipitated this commission,” Lerner said.

Adam Lanza’s father, Peter, told police that his son had Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism. He has indicated a willingness to share his son’s school and medical records.

“We’re going back and forth now trying to come up with some of the parameters about what his involvement might entail,” Scott Jackson, the chairman of the commission, said Friday. “I know the commission really doesn’t have any interest in having him come here and present to us. That’s not what we’re looking for. What we are looking for are the documents that start to tell the more complete story of Adam Lanza and his life.”

He told the committee he would have an initial meeting with Peter Lanza on Wednesday.

Jackson said that autism is a very personal for him. He grew up with a severely autistic brother, and that experience shaped his decision to go into public service, he said.

“This is my lived experience,” he said. “There was concern within the advocacy community about tying developmental disabilities to this great tragedy. I want to say very clearly that is not the intention. This is an issue that needs to be discussed. It deserves to be discussed in public.”

Experts and autism advocates decried attempts to link autism spectrum disorders and violence as long ago as the days immediately after the massacre.

Autism Rights Watch, an organization focused on the rights of people on the autism spectrum and suffering from other disabilities, emphasized in a news release the day after the shooting that Asperger’s syndrome must not be blamed for Lanza’s rampage.

The search for answers should not be a search for a scapegoat. Autism is no excuse or explanation to evil. Being ‘autistic,’ ‘odd,’ ‘awkward,’ ‘camera shy,’ a ‘nerd’ and ‘uncomfortable with others’ does not cause a person to become a mass murderer,” the organization said in the release. “Autistic persons are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators of violence. Autism Rights Watch urges the public and the media outlets not to stigmatize the autistic persons and their families. They already are facing segregation and prejudices on a daily basis.”

Autism Rights Watch said “the easy access to weapons in our households” is the most significant factor to blame for the massacre.

“We are very confident in the ability of the police and the President to address the root causes of this murder-suicide without resorting to scapegoats and hasty explanations,” the release said.

The commission expects to present its recommendations around the end of March.

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