Adam Lanza and Asperger’s syndrome: Sandy Hook massacre puts mental health in the national spotlight

Candles are lit among mementos at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary

Candles are lit among mementos at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, on December 17, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The first two funerals for victims of the shooting were held today. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

According to numerous reports, Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday before killing himself, allegedly suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. Some have speculated that his disorder contributed to the factors leading Lanza to commit mass murder, but experts have cautioned that Lanza’s mental state was likely a complex portrait of disturbance in which autism played a minor part.

Asperger’s syndrome is a neurological condition that, while incurable, can be managed if treated. Sufferers of this autism spectrum disorder often experience difficulty with emotional connection, engage in ritualistic behaviors, and become isolated from peers. These symptoms plagued Lanza, who many in his town have described as an intelligent, but extremely awkward, loner.

Experts have related that, although displays of aggression in those diagnosed with autism can occur up to 30 percent more often than among members of the general population, there is no connection between Asperger’s and the type of violence Lanza displayed.

“But combining Asperger’s with his troubled family situation, a sense of isolation — no job, no school — and no care and treatment, is a recipe for a disaster,” the director of a leading Los Angeles autism treatment center, Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson, told the Daily News.

Lanza was home schooled from a young age, and attended some college, but failed to become actively involved in life. He had no apparent friendships, was unemployed, and had no presence on social media as far as authorities can currently surmise. These circumstances, combined with the personal devastation his parents’ 2009 divorce allegedly caused, might have aggravated underlying psychological issues. Conditions that often occur along with Asperger’s syndrome can include anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Despite these possibilities, a report by ABC News specifies that there are no telltale signs that can predict if a child suffering from a mental illness will become violent.

Dr. Janet Taylor told ABC that Asperger’s syndrome itself is not linked to violence, but conduct disorders, paranoia, and underlying depression or mood disorders can be. In addition, major losses such as a change in relationship status or difficulty with family dynamics can lead to destructive behavior.

Lanza had no criminal record, but many outlets have related that his parents’ divorce was difficult for him, citing as evidence his cessation of college course work concurrent with the timing of their split. As Adam Lanza began to increasingly struggle with behavioral issues, neighbors and friends told reporters that his mother, Nancy Lanza, also fought to help him become more integrated into society. Could these various sources of friction combined with his challenged mental state have led to the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy?

Most agree that it is impossible to say. Looking for signs that a disturbed person will commit violent acts is something few parents or mental health practitioners can employ with success.

“There is no way that as professionals we can predict who certainly is going to be violent and commit a mass murder,” Dr. Taylor told ABC. “One in every ten families have adolescents or teens that have emotional disturbances, which means they have disturbances at home, in the community, and at school, and we need to address those individuals.”

The state of mental health care in America has been scrutinized frequently for its failure to adequately address these types of issues. For members of the African-American community, the stigma related to seeking treatment may compound the lack of preventive psychological care available to troubled young people. Yet, experts agree that this type of intervention may be necessary for the prevention of more tragedies like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and other recent shootings.

“With mass murders increasing in frequency, getting troubled people treatment is a national issue,” reports Time.com.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.