In the week following the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I attended parent support forums at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center and another in West Hartford's Town Hall, both of which involved a panel of mental health clinicians making themselves available to families struggling with the impact of such a significant trauma. As would be expected, the concerns and questions about what to say to kids, how to tell them what happened, how to make them feel safe again, were very compelling and not easily answered.
Some wondered if they should tell their children at all about the 20 children and six women killed. Some wondered if they should send their children to school. Some wondered how to answer their children's questions without causing so much fear that their child would not feel safe walking out the front door. Some wondered what was going to be done, in more concrete terms, in order to keep our children safe at school.
But perhaps the most compelling and disarming comments were those that came from parents of children with mental health or developmental disorders. They were asking, Could my child be capable of such a violent and horrific act?
The answer is that even if Newtown shooter Adam Lanza had a form of autism called Asperger's, that was not the cause of this tragedy. Asperger's, according to the psychiatric diagnostic manual, is characterized by a person's having a limited number of interests, a reptetitive form of play, difficulty in social situations and with communication. People with Asperger's, however, learn language as quickly as others and have average or above average intelligence. Nothing in the definition of Asperger's points to violent behavior or the potential for committing murder.
I tell families and patients in my practice that Adam Lanza might also have had blue eyes, but that is not the cause of his behavior. The vulnerabilities and impairments in thinking that lead one to commit mass murder are extremely complex and multifactorial, and luckily, extremely uncommon. But it is not always easy to persuade a parent who has a child with Asperger's or autism or mental health issues that whatever they are reading about Adam Lanza may not be true, and certainly does not explain a motive for the shooting. As a mom is anxiously watching her child play with Legos, a train set or a collection of dinosaurs, tell her that she does not need to worry.
The problem is, she is worrying, often silently. Because to share these concerns will also reveal what is often a family secret, due to the a stigma that is associated with developmental and mental health disorders. And others may not react with the same degree of empathy as when a family reveals that they have a child with a medical illness. Which is why, when these mothers shared their concerns at the forums, the room was silent. Everyone knew the courage that it took to stand up, and share such private fears.
One mom was even brave enough to ask the other mothers in the audience to find a mom who is struggling with this inner fear, and hug her. Form a circle of support around her, and do not shun her, her family or her child. Statistics from the experts can only go so far in alleviating fears; parents and families and children with developmental and mental health concerns need more than that. They need a community that will stand by them, keep them from feeling alienated or alone, advocate for the services they need, and help make those services easily accessible.
I am sure we all can do that.
Lisa B. Namerow, M.D., is an attending physician who practices child and adolescent psychiatry at Hartford Hospital/Institute of Living with a special focus on children and adolescents with both mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders.