Disability groups respond to Sandy Hook massacre

The Sandy Hook massacre has pushed mental health services back into the limelight, but disability advocates are concerned about the proliferation of misconceptions about Asperger’s Syndrome, the disability allegedly linked to the shooter, Adam Lanza.

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“It is imperative that as we mourn the victims of this horrific tragedy that commentators and the media avoid drawing inappropriate and unfounded links between autism or other disabilities and violence,” the Autistic Self Advocacy Network stated in a news release. “Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.

“Should the shooter in today’s shooting prove to in fact be diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with another disability, the millions of Americans with disabilities should be no more implicated in his actions than the non-disabled population is responsible for those of non-disabled shooters.”

Asperger Syndrome is a type of autism spectrum disorder, characterized by difficulties in social interaction. Unlike autism, people diagnosed as having Asperger Syndrome do not lack cognitive development and are considered high functioning. Early media reports have confirmed by that Lanza’s mother believed he had Asperger Syndrome, though this has not been confirmed by medical reports as of December 22.

Similar to previous similar incidents involving violent incidents by people with disabilities, the massacre has spurred calls for making it easier to involuntarily commit people with mental illnesses, even though just four percent of all violent crimes in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illnesses.

Disability advocates counter that measures such as improved social services, mobile crisis teams and mental health courts are far more effective methods of reducing the threat of violence from people with mental illnesses. Many advocates are optimistic that the tragedy could spur new efforts to improve these services.

“The tragedy has resulted in an enormous push for the country to make a sustained effort to provide real solutions to our mental health crisis, as well as gun control,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness stated on its blog. The test is whether Congress, state legislatures and the country as a whole are serious enough to face up to the challenge.

“It’s not a new challenge. NAMI has been fighting on the mental health care front for many years, with victories and defeats. What’s tragic is that it has taken a horrible tragedy to wake others up.”

In the week since the massacre, autism advocacy groups have experienced a massive spike in calls, emails and website visits and media outlets and are reporting that parents of children with Asperger’s Syndrome fear their children will become increasingly stigmatized.

“People with mental illnesses are no more violent than people without mental illnesses. Yet, these kind of tragic events unfairly and harmfully tar people with mental illnesses as inherently dangerous,” said the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in a statement. “In fact, these Americans not only share the nation’s horror at these events, but also bear the additional weight of false stereotypes and discrimination needlessly reinforced by these perceptions.”