5 important facts and misconceptions about Asperger's syndrome

Crucial info about the developmental disorder that reportedly afflicted the alleged shooter in the Newtown massacre — and has been linked, incorrectly, to violent tendencies

Alleged Newtown shooter Adam Lanza
(Image credit: AP Photo)

We have a natural, if often regrettable, tendency to fear the things we don't understand. In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings that claimed the lives of 20 young children, the blogosphere seized on unconfirmed reports that the alleged shooter, Adam Lanza, was once diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, and the term rocketed up Google's search charts. A controversial first-person essay titled "I am Lanza's mother," which illustrated a mother's fear of violence from her own Asperger's-afflicted son, was widely distributed by websites ranging from Gawker to the Huffington Post, garnering millions of pageviews and inciting bloggers everywhere to weigh in (some more successfully than others). But what do we really know about the developmental disorder, which was hastily conflated with Sandy Hook's bloodshed? Five facts and misconceptions:

1. Asperger's is considered a form of autism, but differs in a few key ways

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines Asperger's syndrome, first identified in 1944, as an "autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of a distinct group of complex disorders characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties, and restrictive, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior." Recent revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM-5) have merged Asperger's syndrome with autism, says Dr. Manny Alvarez at Fox News. However, one of the main differences is that Asperger's does not typically involve a speech delay, and autistic symptoms are typically less severe. Individuals with Asperger's often have strong language skills, "but their speech patterns may be unusual, and they may not pick up on subtleties such as humor or sarcasm." Sometimes Asperger's is referred to as "high-functioning autism." It shouldn't, under any circumstances, be confused with a mental illness like clinical depression.

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2. We still have no idea what causes it

The root of Asperger's, like autism, is largely a mystery. Current research suggests it's connected to early developmental changes in brain structure, which may be caused by "abnormal migration of embryonic cells during fetal development" that "rewires" a person during early childhood, according to the NIH.

3. Asperger's individuals can be remarkably intelligent

People with Asperger's typically have an "unusual preoccupation" with very specific subject matter. "Basically, you get an individual who might have a real restricted repertoire of things they are interested in," Henry Roane, a specialist in the treatment of behavior disorders, tells ABC News, and that's why individuals with Asperger's often get bored easily or shy away from socializing. In fact, what separates Asperger's from many other forms of ASD is that individuals often demonstrate normal or above-normal levels of intelligence, and often perform well academically. For example, in a 2007 study measuring fluid problem-solving abilities, 17 children with Asperger's scored much higher than their age- and sex-matched peers.

4. The diagnosed often self-alienate

Individuals growing up with Asperger's often shy away from human contact, which can kick off a vicious cycle of social alienation. "Today, if you met me, you would think I'm a bit odd but you wouldn't guess that I have Asperger's," says an affected individual in a first-person iReport on CNN. "Because we alienate ourselves at first, and then society alienates us, we have no good reason to seek out friendships other than the basic human need to belong. It is unsurprising to me that many with Autism and Asperger's alienate themselves by choice." He continues: "We want what anyone in their right mind wants: We want to be loved. And we are stubborn people."

5. The connection between Asperger's syndrome and violence is misleading

Autism expert Dr. Ami Klin of the Emory University School of Medicine says that the link that's been drawn between the Newtown shootings and Asperger's is "an enormous disservice" to those affected by developmental disorders. "Any human condition can coexist with violence," but no correlation should be drawn, he tells New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. Now, experts are speaking out, saying that the carefully calculated attack carried out in Sandy Hook last Friday is out of character for someone suffering from Asberger's. "I have known a lot of people with Asperger's and I have never known one who is violent," Dr. Travis Thompson at the University of Minnesota tells NBC News. "They have a lot of problems with anxiety and they have problems with relationships with other people too but that doesn't translate into violence. When they are little kids, they have tantrums because they don't know what to do and they feel adults don’t understand them. When they become older they develop mechanisms and since they are usually very verbal they can ask questions."

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