Don't Stigmatize Asperger's Syndrome in Wake of Newtown Massacre

David Freedman, right, kneels with his son Zachary, 9, both of Newtown, Conn., as they visit a sidewalk memorial for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims,. (National Journal)

My son cradled the iPad and scanned The New York Times article I had downloaded: "A Gunman, Recalled as Intelligent and Shy, Who Left Few Footprints in Life." It said mass murderer Adam Lanza may have had Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

Tyler is an Aspie. He shrugged. "If you meet somebody with Asperger's," he said, "you've only met one person with Asperger's."

Tyler's point is worth us all noting: Don't overgeneralize. Don't stigmatize in a rush to explain inexplicable evil. Autism didn't cause this tragedy: Asperger's is a blip on the far-reaching autism spectrum and no two cases are the same. Just as no "typical" person deserves to be tar-brushed with the evil acts of another, Aspies don't deserve the bad press they're getting.

Tyler's form of autism makes it difficult for him to relate to people "“ to read social cues and easily express empathy. He is not prone to violence nor is he "missing something in the brain," as so-called autism experts are claiming in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy. He is a gentle, loving 15-year-old who, like millions of others on the spectrum, is destined for a happy, successful life: college, marriage, a career and kids "“ whatever he wants.

The same can be said for a reader I'll call Mike, a political consultant with Asperger's who contacted me after I published a story about Tyler's visits with Presidents Bush and Clinton. Mike fears Aspies will be stigmatized by ignorant, half-cocked experts and journalists trying to rationalize the most irrational of acts.

"I cannot stand what I call "˜one-size fits all so-called TV experts' in sensitive areas such as medicine, money, or anything else desperate people are looking for," Mike wrote. "This makes me sick."

Another reader, Karen Phillips, said her 15-year-old Aspie son Ethan, was watching coverage of Lanza's carnage when he blurted, "That guy gives the rest of us a bad name!"

I worried all weekend that the Lanza coverage would bother Tyler, too. "No problem, Dad," he said after setting down the iPad and looking me square in the eyes (no small achievement for an Aspie). Relax, he said, "We both know this isn't a problem"

Yes, we do.

Tyler has made great strides since his diagnosis almost three years ago, gaining self-confidence while patiently learning the social skills most of us inherit. Credit goes to my wife Lori who oversees Tyler's in-school services and manages an evolving team of health care providers.

We are blessed to live in a public school district with a program tailored toward high-intellect Aspies. H.B. Woodlawn High School in Arlington, Va., is led by an extraordinary principal named Frank Haltiwanger who has created a culture of tolerance that celebrates the inner-quirkiness of every student. It's a perfect home for my Aspie.

I thought of Frank and his staff this weekend while reading stories of the heroics at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Teachers risked, and in some cases sacrificed, their lives for their kids. My heart aches for the deceased and for the loved ones left behind, including the family of Lanza.

As I struggle to be a better father and help my perfectly imperfect son, I hope that some good can come of this tragedy: That it will lead to an earnest examination of gun laws, substantial investments in mental health care and a better understanding of autism. President Obama, addressing a vigil for the fallen Sunday, offered a vague but compelling argument for action against gun violence. "What choice do we have?" he said. "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?"

While we the people await the answer, please remember this: If you've met somebody with Asperger's, you're damn lucky.