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Donna Perry: The Socially Disordered World of Adam Lanza

Thursday, December 20, 2012


The dual images of tiny caskets and a young man on a school rampage with guns are the central compelling images currently characterizing the nation’s understanding of last week’s unspeakably horrific massacre of school children in Newtown, Connecticut. But as the days tick forward, it’s becoming more and more evident this is a tragedy on an epic scale that is about much more than guns and what happened when they were in the hands of a deeply troubled 20 year old young man on the grounds of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It can only be hoped that the events of last week may once and for all challenge stubbornly held defenses of the right to ownership of deadly, military style weaponry by just about anyone who can plunk down the money. The type of guns that were used by Adam Lanza to slaughter first his own mother, and then, innocent first graders were apparently kept casually around his own family’s home. The gun debate, and where it goes from here, is a large and significant piece of this harrowing story that was thrust on the nation 11 days before Christmas. But the tragedy of Newtown has also ripped open the curtain on the socially disordered world of Adam Lanza and there will be no meaning to the Newtown massacre if we don’t force ourselves to take a long and uncomfortable look at what that world was, and how it came to be that way. I am among the millions of Americans who has a child with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis and suffice it to say that there is a painful degree of recognition of some elements of the background story now emerging of the Lanza family’s struggles with their son.

The problem of social isolation faced by children on the spectrum is a central and often heartbreakingly difficult challenge for both them and their families. Information now emerging indicates the struggle Nancy Lanza faced in trying to maintain the right academic setting for her son, as recent reports describe how during the high school years she removed him from the local school district after disagreements over the direction of his curriculum; transferring him briefly to a private school; and next resorting to home schooling, before some college level courses were tried at a local community college. It’s clear that the various transitions did not prove successful and reports indicate he had been adrift without a structured day to day setting of schooling or any consistent attempt at employment since completing high school at age 18.

Though programs do exist and there has been a steady growth in college programs tailored to special ed students, the portrait of Adam Lanza’s life over the past year at his mother’s home is one of an unhealthy isolation with a computer seeming to be his only steady companion. Sadly that existence is not as uncommon as may be believed because the offerings of programs fall off sharply once kids complete the high school years. It’s important to underscore that kids with an Asperger’s diagnosis are generally highly intelligent and though it seems unclear whether an actual diagnosis was ever made, (also not uncommon), Adam Lanza has been described as having been highly intelligent. But like so many on the spectrum, it was his social communication disorder and discomforts that seemed to prevent true and lasting relationships with peers to take hold. It is also vital to note there is no known connection between spectrum disordered young adults and violent behavior on the scale of what this young man did at the school. There are, however, several notable pieces of Adam Lanza’s story that in retrospect foreshadowed trouble would follow. The introduction of guns into his daily existence by his mother, which included accompanying her to shooting ranges, certainly represented a dangerously misguided judgment by Nancy Lanza.

Equally troubling though, and a critical piece to filling in the portrait, is the socially disordered existence his own family created around him. His own father Peter Lanza, and only other sibling, his brother Ryan Lanza, reportedly were not in his life and were not in contact with him since about age 17. Divorce, sadly common in families with a child on the spectrum, is part of this story. It is difficult under the circumstances to state this, but a father who leaves a household with a struggling and sensitive 16 year old son with Asperger’s, and then does not continue to see or be engaged with that son, no matter how difficult or resistant the boy was, is a parent who has played a role in the boy’s unraveling. It’s been reported that as the father found a new relationship and remarried, Adam Lanza was resistant to visit or be visited by his father. It’s not surprising that he felt resentment, confusion, and likely hurt over the fracturing of his family. But it would seem it was the father’s responsibility to maintain a relationship with this troubled son, regardless of how difficult it may have been.

Ironically, as the details continue to emerge, our collective compulsion to sketch out every possible detail about who Adam Lanza was, seems to take us further toward a haunting set of questions even while we frantically search for answers. Could different, stricter gun laws, a police presence on school grounds, different family circumstances, more dynamic approaches in the curriculum or wider community programs have averted his actions? Could his life have reached a different outcome with different interventions in earlier years? The most troubling question of all: How could it have been prevented? If, as a community, a state, and a country, we can emerge from this tragedy determined to better protect all our children, then we must recognize that protecting them from social isolation and a socially disordered existence—in addition to protecting all of them from guns---is the obligation facing school systems, community programs—and families. We owe it to those innocent children and brave educators being buried this week to not walk away from that challenge.

Note: A statement about this tragedy from a leader in our own community, Autism Project of RI Executive Director Joanne Quinn, and further insight on programs for spectrum disordered kids can be found at the Autism Project of RI. http://www.theautismproject.org/


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