Today we welcome guest blogger Dr. Sherri Singer, Psy.D., Child & Family Psychologist. You can find her at her website.
When it Comes to Sandy Hook, Sometimes a Headline Can Be Dangerous for Kids
Everyone in our nation was shocked by the Sandy Hook tragedy and of course people want to know more about why it happened in the hopes of preventing it from happening again, but sometimes, that effort can miss something important that can cause more trouble.
I came across this news article a few weeks ago. The headline and something in it’s structure immediately bothered me and even worse, made me feel alarmed as a parent and a professional. The headline reads, “Report says school shooter Lanza had controversial sensory condition, Asperger’s.” I began to read the article looking for information close to the beginning, that said clearly, that not all kids with Asperger’s are like this, but I could not find it. The first paragraph read: “Connecticut school shooter Adam Lanza had been diagnosed with a controversial disorder that made it hard for him to deal with sights, touch and smell and Asperger’s syndrome, a new report claimed Tuesday.”
I kept reading and saw a lot about his history and the family history, but no mention at all about helping people to be able to separate this disturbed individual’s behavior, from all kids with these labels and characteristics. After having to click another link at the bottom of the page to get to the second part of the article, there was a comment midway down the 2nd page that said:
“Asperger’s is a disorder that is part of the autism spectrum. It is marked by difficulty with social interaction. Many with Asperger’s are otherwise high-functioning people. There is no predisposition toward violence among those with Asperger’s, experts say. “It’s very important for people to know that there is absolutely no correlation between the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and a predilection toward violent behavior,” said Dr. Harold Schwartz, chief psychiatrist at the Institute of Living in Hartford.”
I was seriously dismayed that it took that long of a search for me to reach any information that would clear that issue. According to the Neilsen Norman Group, “users often leave web pages in 10-20 seconds”. That is about enough time to read the headline and the first few sentences. On this article, that is a huge problem for me.
As a professional who has worked with kids who have been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and Asperger’s, the last thing these kids need is to be grouped into a homogeneous group that scares people into believing they could all be homicidal at some point. In reading the history of Adam Lanza, there is a lot more there, that created this mess than just SPD or Asperger’s but the headline of this article and the first paragraph does not say that.
The children I have worked with who have been diagnosed with SPD or Asperger’s are as different as all humans are. There is not one way they are. There may be similarities in some behaviors, but depending on things like parental and family support, experiences, levels of severity of the disorder, therapies, and many other variables, these kids can be very different from one another in functioning, behavior and ability to connect with others.
After the incident at Sandy Hook, I received phone calls from several parents/clients who were seriously concerned because this disorder had been named as a possible cause and their children shared that label. They worried that there might be danger. I explained to them that it is not a wise thing to let a child with these problems be socialized on violent video games and taught to shoot as happened in Adam Lanza’s case, but most normal people would know that already. For kids who do not have these labels and behavior, violent, POV (point of view) video games are also not a good idea. Again, logic. As always, I told them that if they had concerns about violence (which these children did not), they would need to take appropriate steps to insure the safety of the child and others, but also that their label did not insure a violent outburst.
Parents also shared concerns with me about the potential for teachers or other kids fearing their child more than before, based on the connection to this tragic event. I share those concerns.
The level of alarm in these parents told me what I already knew after reading this headline and article. This kind of writing does more to make people afraid than to inform. It gets people to read on, but also can misinform. I can see it causing people to fear these kids more and maybe withdraw from them, causing further problems for these children.
There is no doubt that if attraction to violence, or behaviors that show a propensity to liking violent media show up in any child, parents, teachers, guardians etc., should be very worried and take logical and appropriate steps to provide limitations of activities, as well as steps for safety for society and the child.
My mind goes to those kids I have met over the years who are diagnosed but have mild symptoms, and are capable of loving relationships and a normal life with some understanding, changing of circumstances, supportive therapies and good decisions and strong support from those who love and care about the child. I cannot help but think that those people who spent only the 10-20 seconds on this headline and first paragraph, who don’t understand the differences from child to child, are going to be afraid of something they don’t need to be. Fear can and has caused all kinds of prejudice and bad to dangerous outcomes in our society’s history.
I would like to see articles that inform and clearly define from the start, so readers can get information without misinformation.
I’m certain that the few calls I got from alarmed parents, are a reflection of many other parents who would share my concern. Share your thoughts on this blog and we can chat about it.