Autism Experts Voice Concerns about Link between Mental Health and Violence

Some mental health professionals in Western Massachusetts say they’re worried about the way people are associating autism spectrum disorders with violence, following the school shootings in Connecticut.

Early reporting on the shooting suggested that gunman Adam Lanza had aspergers syndrome. The Aspergers Association of New England then put out a statement emphasizing the lack of evidence backing this claim. Many of the gunmen responsible for recent school shootings, including Lanza, have described themselves or been described by others as “socially awkward.” Jim Levine who runs a behavioral health consultation and psychotherapy group in South Hadley says that can be a sign of any number of learning disabilities or mental health disorders, including but not limited to autism.

“There’s nothing in the research that suggests that people on the spectrum are more likely to commit more acts of violence. And in fact, they tend to commit less acts especially acts that are planned in this way. So I’ve often been pretty upset with some of the descriptions of these fellows as being on the spectrum when there hasn’t been any evidence that they are.”

Pam Burrelli is a special education teacher in Springfield whose fifteen year-old-son is autistic and used to be aggressive at home. She agrees that autism doesn’t cause violence, though she says it can be a component of the disorder. And Burrelli says what’s so disconcerting is how hard it is to get help once a child has outgrown the mental health services available in schools and at home. She says it took her a year to get her son into a residential school outside of Boston.

“The police were coming to my house three times a week, and my options were arrest my son at eleven years old, or he was put into crisis and sent back.”

Burelli says her son has displayed what she calls “absolutely no violence” in seven months. But she says she’s concerned he and other kids with autism spectrum disorders — especially aspergers — might become targets for discrimination after the Connecticut shooting last week.