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By KATHLEEN MEGAN, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
6:36 PM EST, December 21, 2012
When early news reports speculated that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, had Asperger's syndrome, parents of children with the diagnosis cringed.
"We sort of get sideswiped with this twist on it," said Robyn Lapenta Trowbridge, whose 17-year-old son has Asperger's. "For us, it was almost like a secondary tragedy."
Parents and advocates for children with Asperger's, who have spent years seeking educational and treatment programs to help their children lead successful lives, said associating the disorder with Lanza's actions was devastating and could jeopardize their progress.
News reports since have emphasized that research shows no association between Asperger's and violence. In addition, there has been no confirmation that Lanza had Asperger's. But parents and people with Asperger's still worry.
Trowbridge, who lives in Meriden, said "this great group of people" with Asperger's is "misunderstood. ... Their reputation is being damaged, and we are concerned that will ultimately damage their opportunities to thrive."
James McGaughey, executive director of the state's Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, said this week he has heard from parents who fear the association of Asperger's syndrome with Lanza could cause their children to be "treated with suspicion and rejected at school and work."
"I have never felt this much fear and insecurity coming from this sector," McGaughey wrote in an email, "but I think their underlying pain grows from their acute awareness of how unfair the world often is to their children."
Symptoms of Asperger's vary but typically include difficulty with communication and social interaction, including understanding social cues. Asperger's also is associated with repetitive behavior.
In the past week of speculation about Lanza, questions also were raised about whether people with Asperger's can gauge others' emotions.
Mary Cohen, director of the Center for Teaching and Research in Autism at Pace University, explained: "Do they have difficulty picking up on others' emotions? Yes, but that doesn't mean they don't feel emotion."
She said that people with Asperger's often might need to have people point out how someone else feels, but once they are told, they can be very empathetic or sympathetic.
"To say they are an emotionless people is absolutely inaccurate," Cohen said. "They are sensitive. They are always striving to be better understood."
Cohen said people with Asperger's are not associated with violent behavior and are much more likely themselves to be the victim of bullying or violence.
Dania Jekel, executive director of the Asperger's Association of New England, said she's had to hold several special meetings this week for people with Asperger's and their parents to discuss fears that the Newtown case might lead to the mistaken association of violence with the disorder.
She said they worried that employers might be scared to hire them or that other children in school might be wary of them.
Asperger's isn't linked to violence any more than lefthandedness is, Jekel said. "To jump from one to another is not accurate."
Jane Shafer of the Quaker Hill section of Waterford, whose 10-year-old son, Caleb, has Asperger's, said that when she heard the speculation about Lanza having Asperger's, she feared that her son's classmates' parents might object to Caleb's presence at school.
"That's the sort of thing that suddenly puts the hair up on the back of my neck," Shafer said. "How do I dispel these rumors? How am I going to put out this fire?"
Her worries did not materialize. Caleb, she said, "is known as the gentle giant. ... He's the one most likely to save the butterfly that got hit by the soccer ball."
But she felt she had to discuss the situation with Caleb in case it came up. He told her, "I really don't want anybody to think that I would ever do something so bad." Shafer assured him she knew that.
At SuperKids, which offers after-school programs in several towns, including Ridgefield, for children with Asperger's and other disorders, co-director Barbara Cooper said she'd been dealing with the issue all week.
"Especially the teenagers who know they have Asperger's — they've been saying, 'Is this going to happen to me? Am I going to be like that?'" Cooper said. "People with Asperger's tend to be concrete thinkers. They think, 'If this man is like that, am I going to be like that?'"
For Michael Pietras of Ledyard the news about the shooter's possible diagnosis really "struck close to home." Like many people with Asperger's, Pietras, 22, endured bullying as he grew up. He remembers being a loner who didn't get along particularly well with authority figures.
When he was in middle school, Pietras said, a teacher once told him that he was "going to turn out like the Columbine killers."
The comment upset Pietras and stayed with him. Now with talk linking Lanza to Asperger's, Pietras said he worries that other kids who are a bit different might get a similar message.
"Being told that was not very helpful," said Pietras, who proved the teacher's grim prophecy wrong. He went on to strengthen his social skills, graduated from Clark University and is now working on his doctorate in computer science.
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