Did Adam Lanza's Asperger's syndrome have anything to do with his murderous rampage that claimed 28 lives?
Authorities investigating the tragedy said that the 20-year-old gunman in the Connecticut elementary school shooting had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism characterized by difficulties in social interaction. Since the latest details of Lanza's mental health have surfaced, many have been quick to tie his mental disorder to his actions.
However, many autism experts are warning that people shouldn't be too quick to judge, and that there is no link between the developmental disorder and violence.
"There really is no clear association between Asperger's and violent behavior," psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Associated Press.
Authorities have identified Lanza as the shooter in the Friday massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Police said Lanza had fatally shot his mother at home before driving to the elementary school where he killed 20 young children, six adults and himself in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
A law enforcement official, who is involved in the investigation but spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.
Asperger's syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is characterized by significant difficulties in social interactions and having a tendency to engage in repetitive behavior. People diagnosed with the condition often described as being very socially awkward, have trouble understanding and reading other people's emotions and have intense and limited interest and ritualistic behaviors.
Many of Lanza's classmates in high school have described him as a loner who was smart, but often very anxious, shy, and socially awkward, according to news reports.
Psychologist Eric Butter of Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, who treats autism, including Asperger's syndrome, said that Lanza's characteristics are typical of people diagnosed with Asperger's.
While research suggests that people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, including those with Asperger's, do show more aggressive behavior compared to the their peers, experts say that the aggression, which is usually characterized by more frequent tantrums, pushing or shoving, is very different than the behavior witnessed last Friday.
Previous studies have shown that aggressive behavior among people diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions happen 20 percent to 30 percent more often than the general population.
"But we are not talking about the kind of planned and intentional type of violence we have seen at Newtown," Butter noted, according to the Associated Press. "These types of tragedies have occurred at the hands of individuals with many different types of personalities and psychological profiles."
Autism can range from mild to severe. Asperger's syndrome is considered one of the milder forms of the developmental disorder, because unlike those diagnosed with classic autism, patients with Asperger's typically do not have delays in speech or mental development.
Experts note that autistic patients are sometimes diagnosed with other mental health conditions, like anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Laugeson believes that last week's tragedy may have had more to do with other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety than with Asperger's, adding that patients with Asperger's generally pay a lot of attention to and follow rules.
"There's something more to this," Laugeson said. "We just don't know what that is yet."
"Whenever there is a horrible tragedy like this one, people want to make sense out of it and they're trying to look for answers," Geraldine Dawson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chief science officer at the nonprofit advocacy group Autism Speaks said, according to HealthDay.
"I think it's important that we be very clear that if this individual did have Asperger's or autism, which we don't know [for sure] that he did, this is not going to help us understand what happened. Because there really is no link between the two," she concluded.