Thursday, November 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Genes don't explain Newtown. Autism certainly doesn't.

Examining Adam Lanza's genes isn't likely to explain anything. And whether or not he had autism is irrelevant.

Genes don't explain Newtown. Autism certainly doesn't.

Mourners grieve at one of the makeshift memorials for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. On Friday, a gunman allegedly killed his mother at their home and then opened fire inside the school, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mourners grieve at one of the makeshift memorials for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. On Friday, a gunman allegedly killed his mother at their home and then opened fire inside the school, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In the wake of the awful tragedy in Newtown, Conn., some pundits are already trying to peer into the mind of the killer, making misbegotten claims about the cause and nature of his violent act.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, H. Wayne Carver II, had asked geneticists at the University of Connecticut department of genetics to investigate whether a genetic condition might have been associated with the shooter’s behavior.

And so on Thursday, The “Booster Shots” blog at the Los Angeles Times wondered, “Will Adam Lanza’s genes help answer the incomprehensible?” The blog focused on Fragile X Syndrome, a hereditary disorder associated with mental retardation, as a possible risk factor for his behavior, as well as possible genes for depression or aggression.

Is this a reasonable line of inquiry?

While it is possible that Lanza had an as-yet unidentified genetic condition, it is unclear what insight that might give us about his motivation or action. Genes cannot explain murderous rampages or violent behavior. And even if there were genes that predisposed individuals to violence, what would that tell us? That Lanza’s awful act could be explained by his genes? That we should worry that thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of other people like him might do the same?

This unsophisticated and ultimately futile attempt to reduce an awful tragedy to an individual’s genes is as preposterous as it is silly. Neither genetics nor human behavior, more generally, works in that way. Behavior is complex, and reducing it to a genetic cause or predisposition tells us little about this action but a lot about our desire to try to explain an evil act in simplistic terms.

You may also have seen the claims that Lanza might have had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and that perhaps that might be connected to his murderous acts. Based on my research of the history and evolving views of the possible causes of autism, I find these claims to be absurd and offensive.

Let’s set the record straight. Autism or Asperger’s was not responsible for Lanza’s actions.

First, we do not yet know what, if any, mental health conditions Lanza suffered from. Any speculation to that effect is, well, just speculation and smoke-blowing. And to be accurate, autism and Asperger’s are not mental health conditions, they are neurodevelopmental disorders “characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.”

Second, while some scientific studies have shown that a minority of autistic individuals can be prone to aggressive behavior, the type of aggression seen in them is not the cold and calculated aggression Lanza exhibited in carrying out his murderous rampage.

This didn’t stop Maggie Gallagher, co-founder and former president of the anti-gay marriage group the National Organization for Marriage, who apparently considers herself an expert on autism and violence, from writing a column at Townhall.com claiming that “the human cost of denying the relationship between autism and aggression is simply unacceptable.” In an odd inversion of the refrigerator mother hypothesis – a once popular and now debunked theory that blamed cold and emotionally distant mothers for causing their child’s autism (in which case it would have been a mental health condition) – Gallagher strings together a series of anecdotes about autistic children victimizing their mothers, and claims that “we are permitting a silent epidemic of domestic terrorism against women that we would not tolerate under any other banner.”

Gallagher and others who make such claims have both the science and the social experience of autism completely wrong.

Research has shown that those individuals on the autism spectrum who do commit violent crimes also suffer from mental illness and personality disorders, which can make them prone – much like people who don't have autism – to violent behavior. Speaking to Slate Magazine earlier this week, Roma Vasa, a child psychiatrist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism & Related Disorders, said that children with Asperger’s “usually only exhibit intense anger if they have additional psychiatric disorders” and that even then “their anger does not typically result in these types of massive violent attacks.”

Autistic people, their parents, family members, and friends have spent decades fighting the stigma associated with the disorder. Bob and Suzanne Wright, co-founders of the respected advocacy group Autism Speaks, issued a statement on the organization’s website that reminds us of the horrors carried out at Sandy Hook and the potential backlash against autistics:

People want immediate or simple answers when an unimaginable tragedy like this occurs. Autism did not cause this horror. The profound tragedy of these senseless murders will only be compounded if it results in unwarranted discrimination against people with autism.

Our condolences, prayers and heartfelt thoughts continue to go out to the families who have lost loved ones, the children and administration of Sandy Hook Elementary School, the first responders at the school and the Sandy Hook Main Station firehouse, the town of Newtown, CT and all who have suffered incomprehensible losses.

- By Michael Yudell


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About this blog

What is public health — and why does it matter?

Through prevention, education, and intervention, public health practitioners - epidemiologists, health policy experts, municipal workers, environmental health scientists - work to keep us healthy.

It’s not always easy. Michael Yudell, Jonathan Purtle, and other contributors tell you why.

Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, MSc Assistant Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
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