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No Link Between Killing, Autism: Experts

One of the first things the nation learned about the odd young man who allegedly shot 20 first-graders, seven adults and himself last Friday is that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

Since then, some may have assumed that Adam Lanza’s violent killing spree was somehow linked to his having a form of autism.

Three Florida mental-health experts who work with autism say the answer is almost certainly no.  Even patients who have the most severe cases of autism would not behave that way – not without some other  form of mental illness or personality disorder.

“We have never had a case (of extreme violence) in treating the autism population here at the university,”  said Matt Nguyen, chief of pediatric and adolescent psychiatry at University of Florida in Gainesville.

Anyone -- including a person diagnosed with autism -- can contract a psychiatric disease such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, he said. But the two would not be connected.

Besides, said Nguyen, the shooter would not necessarily have to have that sort of psychiatric disease. Pointing to the prison population, he said, “to murder, you do not have to have a mental illness.”

Two psychologists affiliated with University of South Florida agreed that such violent behavior is very unlikely to stem from autism spectrum disorder, the new name that covers Asperger's and other variants of autism.

"Simply having a diagnosis of Asperger's or autism would not be a factor that would influence behavior that is as extreme as what we've seen (in the Sandy Hook shootings)," said Karen Berkman, executive director of USF's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD).

Jillian L. Childres, a faculty psychologist in pediatrics at University of South Florida, said that if a person with severe autism becomes agitated, it's because he's frustrated over the inability to communicate,  "not so much a planned violence towards other people.”

Since autism is listed in the diagnostic manual of psychiatric disorders, it may technically be considered a mental illness. But both USF psychologists said they don't regard it as such; instead, they said, it is a developmental disability that stems from an overgrowth of neurons in the brain. The neurons interfere with communication between different parts of the brain, they said.

Like everyone else, families and individuals connected to USF's CARD center have been talking about the mass shooting at the Newtown, CT, elementary school, Berkman said. But they have the extra worry that the public will draw the wrong inference from the alleged shooter's diagnosis of Asperger's.

That could worsen discrimination against those who already carry the burden of autism, Berman said.

"One of my concerns is young adults trying to become employed or become involved in the community or make new friends may be judged by the behavior of one person," she said. "That would be very unfair."

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.