The Dark Side of Asperger’s

February 1, 2013

Adam Lanza may have had Asperger's, a condition our author lives with. Marginalizing him—whether he’s 'one of us' or not—only further compounds the tragedy.

By Charli Devnet

Each time a horrific crime is in the news, commentators characterize the perpetrator as “the madman” or “the deranged individual,” or announce that “a person suffering from mental illness” walked into the school… the mall… the movie theater…. Each time I hear that, I cringe, not because of any sympathy for the guilty party or because it is a slur against the mentally disabled, but because of the smugness of the speaker.

To call someone “deranged” or “mad” is to marginalize them, to declare that they are “not one of us.” Indeed, it is to say that he or she is not really human at all. As an adult with Asperger’s syndrome who has been marginalized all her life, I feel very uncomfortable when anyone, even someone unsavory, is summarily written out of the human race. I wonder if these sanctimonious pundits realize that the most devastating instances of mass carnage (a.k.a. “wars”) have been planned and executed by neurotypicals just like themselves who were perfectly sane—unless you consider “drunk with power” a cognizable mental disorder.

Recently it was reported that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Connecticut elementary school massacre, may have had Asperger’s syndrome. Now it is the autism community’s turn to recoil in horror and declare that no, he could not have possibly been one of us; the Autism Society has issued a press release stating that “it is imperative to remove autism from this tragic story.”

Alex Plank, autism self-advocate and founder of has written for CNN, pleading that we leave autism out of the discussion of these mass shootings and arguing that “the speculations are needless, untrue and hurtful.” The well-known author Joe McGinniss, father of an aspie son, told the New York Times, “the suggestion that Asperger’s might be a clue as to why this happened is offensive to me.” The Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE) complains that “it is painful and frightening to feel associated by virtue of a diagnosis with someone who has committed such a horrific crime.”

It must have been something else, Asperger’s advocates reason, as though this will protect us, shovel him off into the ranks of another persecuted minority.

A website for families affected by high-functioning autism boldly declared in a press release: “We at MAAP wish to state that the vast majority of individuals with autism spectrum challenges (this includes Asperger [sic] syndrome) are not capable of the detailed planning and completion of the diabolical plans reportedly involved in this tragedy.”

“There is really no clear association between Asperger’s and violent behavior,” echoes psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. It must have been something else, Asperger’s advocates reason, as though this will protect us. As if this will shovel him off into the ranks of another, persecuted minority.

The community has reacted as though there were in fact a definitive “something” which would compel a person not only to pump four bullets into the head of his mother as she lay in bed, but to then pack up the car with military gear, drive about five miles to the elementary school, and methodically gun down twenty first graders and a handful of adults who got in his way. Perhaps they envision a demon, riding alongside him, loading ammo into those high-capacity magazines?

Rather than rushing to publish disclaimers, is it not possible that, through this horrific exception to the general rule that autistics only harm themselves and those close to them, we might learn something about ourselves?

Amid the rush of autism advocates, educators, and experts trying to disassociate themselves from Lanza, the remarks of Dr. John Constantino, an autism specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, could easily be lost. Constantino argues on the website of the Los Angeles Times that “the social detachment and withdrawal associated with [Asperger’s] can accentuate other psychiatric conditions that are connected to violence.”

The details of Adam Lanza’s formal diagnosis (if such a diagnosis is even possible) may never be known. It does appear, however, that Lanza’s behavior, up to the date of the shooting, was very aspie-like: he was shy, remote, highly intelligent, but also fidgety, nervous, and always alone. So we will assume that Lanza likely did fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, and we may further assume that, like many adolescent and adult aspies—myself included—he may have suffered from comorbid disorders such as depression and anxiety. While I am not saying these conditions caused him to commit such a despicable and irrational crime, arguing that his autism had nothing to do with it may be a stretch. Rather than rushing to publish disclaimers, is it not possible that, through this horrific exception to the general rule that autistics only harm themselves and those close to them, we might learn something about ourselves?

I knew someone who killed his mother. I lived next door to his family for many years. Jason was not on the spectrum and, as far as I know, he had no mental disorders. He was just an ordinary kid. Yes, as a teenager he was a bit wild, but, by the time he reached his early twenties, the young man appeared to have turned his life around. He took responsibility for his life; he dressed well and was gainfully employed. In truth, I admired him immensely. Like many aspies, I had experienced a world of difficulty making the transition to adulthood and foundered about for many years in a limbo of dysfunctionality.

The young man disappeared from the neighborhood. I supposed he had gotten his own place, moved to another town, perhaps even married. His mother told me no, that he was jailed on a drug charge and asked me to say a prayer for his release. Eventually Jason was freed, and one night, apparently in an alcohol-fueled rage, he bludgeoned his mother and stepfather to death. He’s back in prison now, locked away for life.

When I heard what Jason had done, I not only mourned for the victims, I shuddered, crossed myself and murmured, There but for the grace of God…. This was the kind of tragedy that I could relate to as an autistic individual. Had I not myself, in times of stress, flown into blind rages, and lashed out at loved ones or anyone who might be nearby? Had I not lost control of my behavior and caused damage and harm? I had never flipped out to such an extent, of course, but the realization of what rage might do caused me to reexamine my own tendencies and thenceforth I held the reins a little tighter whenever my emotions threatened to run away with me.

Unlike Jason, Adam Lanza’s criminal rampage was not a crime of passion; he did not just “snap” one night and strike out blindly. Lanza’s planning was very un-aspie-like. It took deliberation and a degree of cold-bloodedness to assemble that combat gear, a utility vest, and numerous clips of ammunition, to pack that arsenal into a family car and drive to town, not aimlessly, but to the local elementary school. Individuals on the autistic spectrum rarely commit preplanned, premeditated violence against strangers. That is why so few autistics go for soldiers. We on the autism spectrum are inner-directed, as the very word “autism” implies (literally, “self-ism”).

About a week after the incident, I met with my therapist. She suggested that perhaps Adam Lanza was envious of the children. Perhaps he believed that he had been deprived of his own childhood, perhaps he had felt shunned by his own classmates and locked out of their world, and the very existence of these present-day first graders wrenched his heart with excruciating pain.

I recollected my own past. It was not my childhood that I had been robbed of, but adolescence. The summer I turned thirteen, my parents sold our house and moved to a rustic area in upstate New York. Life as I knew it was ended. Left behind were my childhood friends, my school, three grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles. Once a spunky street urchin, I suddenly found myself abandoned on the frozen tundra with no one to talk to and nowhere to go, unbearably lonely and homesick. High school was a nightmare from start to finish. I was bussed to a large, impersonal campus full of bullies and strangers. My grades, which had once been exceptional, plummeted. I made no new friends to replace those I had lost, nor did I have an adult mentor. There were a few good teachers there who might have taken me under their wings, but they were overwhelmed and far too busy. My parents were convinced that I was only making believe, pretending to fall apart in order to punish them for tearing me away from my hometown. Dragging myself out of bed in the morning was sheer agony; sleep, my only solace. All the while I was well aware that, all around me, the other students were having fun, dating, going to parties, dances and football games. It’s not that I did not want to join them; my nose was pressed to the windowpane.

Long after those days were past, when I was in my twenties and thirties—and, yes, in my forties—my heart would sink whenever I happened upon a group of teenagers chatting, flirting, and enjoying themselves. An unreasonable envy would seize me, and I would curse them under my breath and wish them misfortune. I knew that my reaction was irrational, that these young people had done me no harm, that they were not the bullies who had tormented me and locked me out of their world. Logic could not dispel the anger and pain that seethed within.

Aspies are prey animals, said Tony Attwood…Wounded prey may, however, grow desperate and strike back.

I might have wished them misfortune, but would I have ever taken steps to inflict it? Of course not. I turned and walked away. If I came upon the teens in a diner, I got up and left. If we were on a train, I moved to another car. Then I did what aspies commonly do. I turned and sunk my claws into my own heart, scorpion-like. I gave myself up to the slow suicide of desolation and despair.

If Adam Lanza had only destroyed himself, no one would have noticed. He would have silently departed this world, leaving “few footprints in life,” as the New York Times put it. If he had only killed his mother, well-meaning people would have shaken their heads and said exactly what they said about my neighbor, that here was another troubled young man who “snapped.” It is because Lanza exploded in such an unusual, deliberate and almost apocalyptic way, that we are so shaken. If we allow that Lanza might have been on the austistic spectrum it might help us take a candid look at the dark side of living on the spectrum.

Aspies are prey animals, said Tony Attwood at an Asperger’s conference in 2012. We are much more likely to be victims than villains. Wounded prey may, however, grow desperate and strike back. A lifetime of being bullied, rejected, and relegated to the periphery of life can give rise to anger and bitter fantasies of revenge, especially perhaps among lonely young autistics that have grown up in a culture where violence is glamorized and who may turn to perfecting their skills at violent video games in lieu of a social life.

Advocates prefer not to address these negative aspects of autism. The reason for this is easy to understand. First of all, scare no one. Better to portray us as shy, gentle, quirky geniuses. This is a safe depiction, but perhaps not complete. Yes, we want acceptance, but must we sacrifice some inconvenient facts, and pretend all aspies are saints? The one who is not a saint, who carries the scars of unbearable pain, must hide himself in shame.

Charli Devnet is an adult with Asperger’s syndrome, diagnosed late in life. Her story is the first chapter in Dr. Temple Grandin’s book Different… Not Less, (Future Horizons 2012). She is the author of an upcoming memoir, The Snow Queen’s Daughter, to be published by Bramble Books in 2013. Devnet is a tour guide at the historic Rockefeller estate, Kykuit (in Dutch: “lookout” or “high place”). She lives in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, with two cats and a pony, Silverado.