The images of tiny caskets, a bloodied school, and grief-devoured families associated with the Newtown shooting massacre have now been replaced by an emerging set of Presidential Executive Orders to tighten up gun laws, renewed debates over video games, and unfortunately, continued harsh and defensive rhetoric about the Second Amendment and the powerful gun lobby’s apparent determination to reject proposed weapon restrictions. This week marks one month since the Dec. 14 massacre, but in many ways the most difficult days have really just begun. It can only be hoped that as the weeks and months take us further away from our collective horror of Newtown, that we won’t lose momentum to bring about rational and reasonable gun control changes that can strike a balance between Second Amendment rights with recognition of the rights of all Americans to have safe access to common public spaces like schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, and all the rest.
The type of guns that were used by Adam Lanza to slaughter first his own mother, and then, innocent first graders were apparently kept casually around his own family’s home and he was well trained to use them by his own mother. The issue of keeping guns within a home where there are children or other family members struggling with certain mental health issues certainly should now be part of the wider gun debate in the wake of Newtown. We must accept that this was a tragedy on an epic scale that most certainly begins with guns, but doesn’t end there. It is also a tragedy about families and their ability to cope—or fail to cope—with their own children and teenagers who may have spectrum disorders or struggle with other mental health issues. It will be an additional tragedy if the now increasingly high decibel gun control debate results in our losing sight of those other issues.
In the days after the massacre, the curtain began to be pulled open on the social isolation and socially disordered world of the shooter, Adam Lanza, and we were forced to take a long and uncomfortable look at what that world was, and how it came to be that way. I am among the millions of Americans who has a child with an autism spectrum disorder. The problem of social isolation faced by children on the spectrum is a central and often heartbreakingly difficult challenge for those kids and their families.
News reports over the past month that delved into the Lanza family have sketched out a not uncommon struggle Nancy Lanza faced in trying to maintain the right academic setting for her son. It’s clear that various transitions she sought had mixed results at best and indications were that he was adrift without a structured day-to-day setting of schooling or any consistent arrangement of employment since completing high school at age 18. Though community programs do exist and there has been a steady growth in college programs tailored to students on the spectrum who may need a revised curriculum, the portrait of Adam Lanza’s life over the past year at his mother’s home is one of an extraordinarily unhealthy isolation with a computer seemingly his only steady companion, and hours long engagement with a violent, shooting-centered video game his central preoccupation. That existence did not have to be that way but sadly, it is not as completely uncommon as we may want to believe. The options for families of kids with spectrum disorder issues tend to diminish significantly once kids complete the high school years. An important point to underscore here: kids or adults with an Asperger’s diagnosis and/or high-functioning autism are often highly intelligent and though it seems unclear whether an actual diagnosis was ever made, Adam Lanza was described as having been highly intelligent. But reports also indicated there were clear and significant social communication struggles evident, which clearly had been blocking a transition from high school to a higher education or workplace setting for this individual.
It is critical to note there is no known connection between spectrum-disordered young adults and violent actions on the level of what occurred, but there are several notable pieces of Adam Lanza’s story that should not become forgotten. His introduction to guns by his mother, which included accompanying her to shooting ranges, certainly represented a dangerously misguided judgment by her. Equally troubling though is the disordered existence his own family unknowingly built around him. It’s difficult to cast judgment because his surviving sibling Ryan Lanza, and father, Peter Lanza, are no doubt wracked with their own grief. But it’s relative to note that, according to news reports, Ryan Lanza was out of contact with his younger brother for several years and Peter Lanza left not only his marriage—but also basically exited his own son’s life.
The feelings of resentment, confusion, and deep hurt suffered by most kids over the trauma of divorce can take on a whole different shape when experienced by kids on the spectrum. Such kids are often challenged by the nuances of basic and primary relationships to begin with, and certainly have difficulty grasping the complexity of divorced parents with new partners and new households and all the rest. Due to these dynamics, Adam Lanza’s own family unwittingly contributed to what became an increasingly disordered existence marked by severe social isolation, and that reality is one of the many wrenching pieces of the Newtown tragedy.
Ironically, despite a month of news coverage saturation and innumerable postings, our attempt to understand Newtown seems to only take us further toward new questions. Could different, stricter gun laws, different family circumstances, or more dynamic community programs have made a difference? Could his life have reached a different outcome? And the most difficult question of all: could it have been prevented? If, as a community, a state, and a country, we can emerge from this tragedy determined to better protect all our children, then we must recognize that protecting them from social isolation and a socially disordered existence—in addition to better protecting all of them from weapons–is the obligation facing school systems, community programs—and families. We owe it to those innocent children and brave educators whose promising lives were snuffed out in mere moments just days before Christmas, to not walk away from that challenge.
Donna Perry is an East Greenwich parent, advocate, and writer.