HARTFORD — The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission secured a promise Friday from Peter Lanza to turn over at least some of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza's treatment records, and heard from two of the foremost autism experts on what the disorder isn't, as much as what it is.
Peter Lanza "called me during the last presentation,'' Sandy Hook panel Chairman Scott Jackson said before the commission broke for lunch Friday afternoon. "I'm going to sit down with him in short order" to work out the parameters of a records release.
Jackson, the mayor of Hamden, said earlier Friday that Peter Lanza had reached out to him recently and promised to help the commission in its quest to better understand what drove Lanza's son to kill 26 children and women at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, and to analyze Connecticut's mental health system for gaps and breakdowns.
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Peter Lanza's commitment was one step on that journey Friday; another was hearing Dr. Fred R. Volkmar of Yale and Matthew D. Lerner of Stony Brook University in New York cite study after study showing no link between autism spectrum disorders and violent crime.
Adam Lanza "displayed a profound autism spectrum disorder with rigidity, isolation and a lack of comprehension of ordinary social interaction and communications," a Yale psychiatrist involved in Lanza's care concluded, according to state police records.
The recently released police reports revealed that Adam Lanza was seen at the Yale Child Study Center in his early teens and was once prescribed the antidepressant Celexa.
Volkmar, a child psychiatrist, professor of pediatrics, and chairman of the Yale Child Study Center, and Lerner, an assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics at Stony Brook, said that people with autism and Asperger's syndrome are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. When people on the autism spectrum do commit violence, it's almost always impulsive and reflexive, and in response to a situation that has overwhelmed them.
That Lanza apparently had an autism spectrum diagnosis and committed a calculated crime makes his case exceedingly rare. Lanza killed his mother before driving, heavily armed, to the Sandy Hook school.
Someone with an autism spectrum disorder might struggle to control his emotions in a confusing situation, might exhibit poor judgment socially and might inappropriately assign blame. He might become overwhelmed and agitated when stressed, but in most instances wouldn't act out violently, Lerner said.
Jackson asked what the commission and the community can do to make schools in Connecticut safer.
Volkmar and Lerner said that schools must be places of inclusion that respect and accommodate all of the children. All teachers should be trained to recognize and respond to bullying, and to communicate with children behaving in ways that isolate them from their peers.
Volkmar gave an example. He said that a child spent every recess with his back to the other kids outside, gripping two rocks in his hands and compulsively knocking them together. The child's distraught mother went to Volkmar for help. The doctor, with decades of experience, told her to ask the teacher if she had ever talked to the child. The teacher had not. When she did, the child said that banging the rocks together was the way he stayed out of trouble.
The teacher began letting the child stay in the classroom during recess and play an inclusive computer game that involved players taking turns. Soon, Volkmar said, a few other children wanted to play the game as well, and the child finally found some mates.
Lanza had become increasingly isolated during the last two years of his life, and Volkmar urged the commission to strongly consider social isolation when looking at whether Connecticut's mental health system adequately responds to children, teenagers and young adults in crisis.
Dr. Harold Schwartz, chairman of psychiatry at Hartford's Institute of Living and a Sandy Hook commission member, asked how time spent playing video games and other solo digital activities contributed to that isolation.
Lanza was a prolific player of violent and nonviolent video games, posted online under the handle "Kaynbred" and probably other names, and meticulously edited online archives on mass murderers.
Volkmar said that the virtual world could be isolating, but advised caution in assessing someone's online activity.
For a person on the autism spectrum, "one of the pulls toward the computer is that it is rule-governed,'' said Volkmar, adding that a person "can relate to others [in ways] that are not as complicated as doing it in real time.''
Lerner said that with the emergence of social networks, researchers are finding that many online relationships mirror the vibrancy of real-life friendships.
So when analyzing someone's behavior online, it's critical to look at quality and content, not just time, Lerner and Volkmar said.
Members of the Sandy Hook commission have said that it was vital for them to have more information about Adam Lanza's mental health history, but it had been unclear whether his family would release records to the commission.
Peter Lanza is now encouraging Jackson "to invite any health care or service providers that worked with Adam to assist with the commission's effort to find answers," a spokesman for Lanza previously told The Courant.
Jackson did not say Friday whether any records provided by Peter Lanza would be made public.