Psychology professors from Stony Brook University and Yale University on Friday told the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission that autistic children are at risk of social isolation, but are not more violent than the general population.
“Having autism does not mean you’re likely to commit a violent crime,” Dr. Matthew Lerner, a psychology professor from Stony Brook, told the commission Friday.
He said autistic individuals do, however, display traits that sometimes bring them into contact with the criminal justice system. Those traits include obsessive compulsive and impulsive behavior and an inability to understand social cues.
“Social isolation is a dramatically more common situation among individuals who are engaged in rare violent, law breaking behavior,” Lerner said. “But these factors are relevant to everyone, not just persons with autism.”
He said that because autistic children have a harder time understanding social cues, it’s harder for them sometimes to find ways to extract themselves from a social situation where they feel overwhelmed.
But Lerner said almost none of the literature on the topic points to an autistic child planning a mass murder like the one carried out at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
“The types of events that precipitated this commission are extraordinarily low-based rate events and are not, at this point, representative where we see individuals with autism engaging in these behaviors,” Lerner said.
The 16-member commission is searching for a public policy response to the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting of 20 children and six educators by a gunman who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, who chairs the commission, received a phone call from Peter Lanza, the gunman’s father, during Friday’s hearing. Jackson has been trying to set up a meeting with Lanza to see if he can find out more about Adam Lanza’s medical condition.
Adam Lanza was the 20-year-old gunman who took his own life shortly after police arrived at the school. Before going to the school, Lanza killed his mother in her bedroom at the home the two shared. Peter Lanza had not lived at the Newtown home since the couple’s 2009 divorce, but police records show he tried to stay in touch with his son.
“Mr. Lanza has expressed his desire to help us, so we’re working on the details of how that might work,” Jackson said.
He said the testimony the commission heard from experts Friday about the services and programs available for those with autism would be applied back to the incident at Sandy Hook “to find out if there’s a gap or an opportunity that could have been taken advantage of and should be available to other families in Connecticut right now.”
But that’s a huge undertaking since it’s unknown exactly how many individuals in the state have autism and need services.
Department of Developmental Services Commissioner Terrence Macy told the commission that there isn’t any good information when it comes to trying to identify how large or small the population is in Connecticut. He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks the autism population in some states, but not every state.
In 2006, Connecticut started a pilot program that now serves 114 individuals with autism and no intellectual disability. Seventy-eight of those individuals are Medicaid eligible adults, which means they have little income or are spending down their income in order to qualify. There is no income-asset test for children under the age of 18 participating in the program.
Macy said there are 200 individuals on a wait list for that program.
Individuals who come from middle and upper class families would not qualify for that program or the services it provides.
It’s still unknown whether the Lanza family had health insurance, but as many as “half of psychiatrists don’t take insurance,” Dr. Fred Volkmar of the Yale Child Studies Center said Friday.
“The people who can afford it buy services privately,” Volkmar said. “Then we have this large group in the middle where they often — if they have insurance at all — it covers very little and there are very few providers.”
What the commission does know from the police report is that in October 2006, Adam Lanza was taken to the Yale Child Studies Center where he was evaluated by Dr. Robert King and later by Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Kathleen Koenig, who met with the youth four times through February 2007.
He was diagnosed with “profound Autism Spectrum Disorder, with a secondary diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” Koenig prescribed Celexa, an anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication and follow-up visits, but Adam’s mother, Nancy Lanza, told Koenig that her son was “unable to raise his arm” after taking the medication.
“Nancy Lanza stated that because of her son’s symptoms, he would be discontinuing the use of the medication,” according to the interview Koenig gave police.
Mr. Lanza also told police his son had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He said Adam was home schooled after his freshman year at Newtown High School, according to the report.
“Peter stated that Adam viewed his home as a comfort zone, whereas school and social interaction led to pressure,” the report said.