Monday, December 17, 2012

Putting the Pieces Back Together: The Aftermath of the Newtown Tragedy

Our thoughts and hearts are with Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Newtown, CT community as they cope with the tragedy of last week’s shooting. While nothing authoritative has been made public about Adam Lanza’s mental health, there is speculation that he may have been struggling with several psychiatric disorders, including an autism spectrum disorder. This has raised concern about a possible connection between autism spectrum disorders and violence. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by difficulty with social communication, building and maintaining relationships, intense interests, and repetitive behaviors. While individuals with ASD do sometimes show self-injurious behaviors or episodes of outward aggression, there is not a higher rate of planned violence, delusions, hallucinations, or psychotic symptoms than in the general population.

The tragic event that occurred in our country last week has left a community reeling to provide support for the families, students, and teachers who were directly affected. In an effort to try to understand such a shocking event, we believe it is critical to recognize that the actions of one individual should not translate to widespread assumptions about the autism community or any other group of individuals with mental health disorders. The autism community is devoted to advocating for medical, educational, and social equality for its community members. We hope this advocacy will not suffer any setback as ASD is highlighted in media coverage related to this devastating event.

The Center for Autism Research and CHOP are committed to continuing to support the autism community. We offer the following information and resources for helping individuals with ASD process what has occurred in Newtown, CT:

What resources are available to help parents discuss the recent events with their own children?

Some, but not all, individuals with ASD may benefit from additional support and guidance. Consider the following:
  • If your children are old enough to be aware of their ASD diagnosis, they may have new questions about what it means for them in everyday life, and in relation to the shooting. They may also hear their peers at school discussing ASDs more frequently. Encourage your children to share their thoughts and concerns with you, their teacher(s), and their doctors/therapists.
  • Individuals with ASD can sometimes show anxiety in different ways than would be expected. Be aware of changes in your child’s behavior or usual routines (compared to their own baseline of functioning) that may represent increased worry and anxiety. Just like any other child, aspects of life that are more challenging for your child with ASD may be even more difficult during this time. Be sensitive to your child’s worries while maintaining regular routines that will offer structure and help your child feel safe.
  • Many children with ASD are prone to asking repetitive questions about particular topics, especially if they are anxiety-provoking. Should your child “get stuck” on talking about the shooting and wanting to gain additional information, provide them with facts that will pacify the interest while also limiting exposure to media coverage and redirecting their attention to a different topic/activity. Also, encourage your child to focus on the “helpers” involved in the event (e.g., paramedics, firefighters) and what they can do individually to help (e.g., send cards to children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, have them help you address the envelope for sending a donation).
  • As a parent of a child with an ASD (or any child), be sure to take care of your own emotional needs and responses to these events. Seek out other adults and support networks/groups to help you process your own reactions and the experiences of supporting your children during these times.

What can parents do if they are worried about their child?
  • Discuss your concerns with your current mental health care provider. If you do not have a current provider, contact your pediatrician for referral resources.
  • Stay in communication with your child’s school. Share your concerns with your child’s teacher and school counselor/psychologist.
  • As would be the case with any child, if you have urgent concerns about your child’s safety or well-being, call 911 or bring your child to the emergency room. If your child has an autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disorder, be sure to alert law enforcement officials and healthcare providers of your child’s diagnosis in order to improve communication and specialized care.