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18Dec 2012

Getting it right: Asperger's, Autism and the Newtown shooting

Newtown, CT/

In the aftermath of the horrific Newtown shooting, media reports began to circulate that the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndome. Although neither the family nor health care professionals involved in treatment have officially confirmed this, an unfortunate number of news media outlets leapt on this as a possible explanation for the murderous outcome.

But the actual information was so sketchy that we ended up with stories that read occasionally sketchy as well, like this section from a David Halbfinger piece in The New York Times, in which former Lanza classmates were cited as follows: "Several said in separate interviews that it was their understanding that he had a developmental disorder. They said they had been told that the disorder was Asperger’s syndrome, which is considered a high functioning form of autism."

Nevermind that the diagnosis news was obviously third-hand at best; never mind that both Asperger's and autism are broad-spectrum terms that actually tell you very little about an individual, we next found people invited on national television practically suggesting that these diagnoses were a logical explanation for a gun-toting sociopath. Or as Tommy Christopher wrote, at Media-ite, "the news media has been engaged, in varying degrees, in a campaign to falsely link autism with the sort of violence that resulted in this unspeakable event."

Perhaps,  campaign is a little strong as a description. But there's no doubt that the autism speculation, hunt for answers, nature of the coverage led to a sorry amount of misinformation about both Asperger's and autism, raising concerns about wrong-headed stereotyping of individuals with these diagnoses. Parenting columnist Mari-Jane Williams at The Washington Post expressed that point beautifully: "My brain was screaming: Please, please, please don’t make this about autism. People with autism are no more likely to commit this kind of senseless act of violence than anyone else, and mentioning autism in this context can create inaccurate associations in people’s minds."

And if this was only a story of media bad behavior, then I'd be writing a much shorter, much crankier piece here. But both Williams and Christopher's pieces will tell you that there was an immediate move to correct this problem, from advocates, from media critics, and from some of the country's best science writers. At the New York Times, for instance, Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist Amy Harmon wrote a story which cited experts who debunked any connection with the shooting, noting that planned violence using weapons is extremely rare in people with these diagnoses and, actually, more common in other groups.  The Times also published an op-ed by Priscilla Gilman titled "Don't Blame Autism for Newtown." And the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, also wrote critically about the misleading coverage.

Science blogger Emily Willingham published a piece at Slate's XX which also noted the disconnect but also made mince meat of some claims circulating that people with Asperger's or autism lack empathy, noting that people with autism clearly understand communication about emotions and the people with Asperger's are actually well known as emotionally empathetic. Willingham's Slate piece is a detailed and completely dismissive answer to the media speculation. She also wrote a guest post, on Matt Shipman's Communication Breakdown blog, titled "The Costs of Bad Science Communication." It's angrier: "Autistic people—particularly those with Asperger’s—are now at risk of being viewed by an uninformed public as potential mass murderers, undoing a great deal of progress toward understanding and awareness. Any of this damage could have been prevented had journalists followed some basic rules of confirmation and qualification when reporting the story."

David Wagner also does a great job of summarizing the initial stories - and the corrective ones at The Atlantic.  Heidi Evans, a health blogger at The New York Daily News, wrote a clear and pointed piece, which ran under the detailed headline: "People with Asperger's rarely harm other so don't be so quick to link Adam Lanza's actions with syndrome." At New York magazine, writer Adam Martin flatly called the Asperger's story a "red herring" explanation.  At Medical Daily, Christine Hsu came to precisely the same conclusion.

In other words, there was a rapid and strong move toward self-correction by the media following those first reports. Is it perfect, does it repair all the damage? Let's say not all. But let's also agree that in a week shadowed by a story of tragic loss, that this move toward getting it right represents a small but definite blessing.

                                                                                                                                                                        -- Deborah Blum

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