As investigators begin to piece together a profile of Connecticut school massacre gunman Adam Lanza, much is being speculated about his possible Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis. But to suggest a tie between autism and violent, sociopathic tendencies is to undermine the large body of research and progress that's been made in understanding the disorder, says autism expert and Executive Director of the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph's University Michelle Rowe, Ph.D.
"We know that children and adults with autism are often misunderstood," she says. "Small talk is not especially easy. Those on the spectrum have trouble understanding sarcasm. They struggle to understand basic social rules -- how to take turns, how to make eye contact.
"We also know that people with autism are not sociopaths. There is no evidence or research that suggests a link between autism and planned violence."
Rowe points to critical differences in the brains of so-called "neuro-typicals" and those on the autism spectrum.
"The prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain, just above the eyebrows, that most people know as the frontal lobe) helps "neuro-typicals" make sense of the world," she explains. "We make eye contact and assess facial expressions. This is the brain's way of helping us connect with people. Without that skill -- that ability -- wouldn't we all be misunderstood?"
It's a much different world for people living with autism than it was just 10 years ago, Rowe adds. Awareness is at an all-time high. Services are expanding and those on the autism spectrum are being mainstreamed in schools all across the country.
"We've come too far and we know too much to revert back to the days when people with disabilities were locked up out of fear," says Rowe. "We shouldn't fear autism-- not now-- not when we understand more than we ever have about it."
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