The fatal stabbing of James Alenson – allegedly by a teen living with Aspergers (high-functioning autism) – raises the issue of whether this tragedy is related to Aspergers. Those of us who work with kids with Aspergers worry that fingers will be pointed at people with the diagnosis. No two kids with this diagnosis are alike, and generally speaking this is not a dangerously violent group.
Current prevalence estimates suggest that 1 in 166 kids will have a diagnosis of an autistic spectrum disorder, with four times more boys than girls being diagnosed. These kids have different learning styles and ways of social interaction. More than half have difficulty responding to sensory input, which may manifest as extreme sensitivity to sounds, touch, smells, and textures of food. They frequently overreact to common inconveniences, such as being bumped in the hallway at school, and may not understand the appropriate distance from others in social situations.
Most take much longer to develop "theory of mind" (i.e., the ability to understand another person's perspective). They can misinterpret nonverbal cues or body language in conversation. All need to learn aspects of communication that come intuitively to their typically developing peers. Some do beautifully with early intervention and continued help with their social skills as they grow up. Most are of average or above average intelligence, and some are brilliant. All are quirky, sometimes in delightful ways, but often in ways that isolate them from their peers.
Children with Aspergers typically have intense "special interests" about which they collect voluminous information and talk repetitively without self-consciousness. For some kids with the disorder, these are harmless obsessions about obscure topics such as the Civil War, the Titanic or magic cards. Like many teens, they can spend hours playing violent video games, but a boy with Aspergers may become more fixated upon and have less perspective about the games.
Today's teenagers with Aspergers are the first to reach the high school years with this diagnosis. They are the first to have reaped the benefits of the many therapies and interventions, including medications designed to foster their development or alleviate disturbing symptoms.
I hear many stories of "overwhelming rage" at the memories of isolation and victimization by bullies during the middle and high school years. Research shows that 3 out of 5 teens with Aspergers report being bullied at school, while 90 percent of their moms and dads report that their kids have been teased. Twenty percent of those studied changed schools because of bullying and a majority of moms and dads report that no action was taken by school staff against the bully.
Teens with Aspergers may have additional, co-morbid psychiatric diagnoses such as Tourette's syndrome, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression or eating disorders.
While aggression and physical violence have not been considered hallmarks of Aspergers, we often hear from moms and dads about stubbornness, rigidity, and high levels of anxiety. A typical American high school can be a stressful environment for someone with Aspergers. Many teens are hostile or indifferent to odd, eccentric peers.
The social demands of high school, such as flirting and dating, are often too much for adolescents with Aspergers because they are frequently trying to figure out what a simple friendship is about. The intrusive sensory properties of large high schools, such as the public address system, the chaos of locker rooms and bathrooms, hallways, and cafeterias can completely overwhelm a youngster.
When their senses are overloaded, teens with Aspergers can sometimes be quite reactive, even disruptive, though hardly ever dangerous. Unfortunately, they often do not understand the impact of their behaviors on others.
What do we learn from such tragedy and loss of life? We learn that we cannot control everything despite the absolute best of intentions, that no matter how intelligent a youngster with Aspergers is, he or she will need more support than a typical youngster for a much longer period of time. The stress on families is enormous.
One of the lessons we should learn from the Lincoln-Sudbury tragedy is that we should avoid the temptation to draw conclusions and stereotypes about kids with Aspergers. And we can grieve the losses suffered by the Alensons, the Odgrens, and the Lincoln-Sudbury community.
My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns