By Judy Endow, MSW
Autistic Global Initiative
Due to the media speculation that Adam Lanza, the suspect in the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, may have been affected with Asperger Syndrome, concern has developed on several fronts. Of immediate concern is fear that students returning to school who have been previously identified with having an Autism Spectrum Disorder may now be stigmatized, especially those who may exhibit meltdown behaviors in the educational setting.
The politically incorrect question on everybody’s mind is, “Are students with ASD dangerous when they have meltdowns and might this behavior lead to another Sandy Hook kind of incident at our school?”
Some general response in recent news media include:
- “There is absolutely no evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence.” The Autism Society of America, 12-16-12.
- "Having Asperger’s or the autism spectrum in your life—as an individual, a parent...etc.—does not carry any bearing with whether or not you will become (for lack of a better term) "a good person" in this life. While the majority of statistics prove that we are infinitely more prone to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence, we are not immune from becoming people capable of making terrible, horrible choices. No one is.” Michael John Carley, GRASP, 12-14-12.
- "Aggression and violence in the ASD population is reactive, not preplanned and deliberate." Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist and autism expert at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, "Groups: Autism Not To Blame for Violence" CNN, 12-17-12.
In my work with school districts across country and into other countries this is the protocol I use when asked to evaluate and recommend a plan of action for students with ASD who have severe meltdown behavior:
- Ensure an interactive visual schedule and implementation of sensory regulation based on individual sensory needs is implemented for 2-4 weeks to stabilize the student. (Endow, 2011) Often times once regulation needs have been met and the student is stabilized most of the behavior fades away.
- If some meltdown behavior remains evaluate whether behavior is escalating in nature or not.
- Use Outsmarting Explosive Behavior (Endow, 2009) or a similar system to map out the stages of escalating behaviors. This is important because the explosive behavior is best prevented the earlier it is noticed. Once at the height of the behavior the fight or flight response has been triggered, making it impossible to persuade the individual stop the behavior. Nobody acting off survival instinct will be able to stop a behavior they are using regardless of what you do to try to get them to stop. If you understand the stages that come before the explosion stage you will be able to intervene. The earlier you notice the more likely you can support and intervene for successful outcome.
- If behavior is not escalating in nature do a Functional Behavioral Assessment and proceed with that protocol.
- Use tools like the Ziggurat Model (Grossman & Aspy, 2011) and the Comprehensive Autism Planning System (Henry & Myles 2007) to provide comprehensive evaluation, purposeful meaningful support, and optimal implementation of support strategies across the school day.
To avoid stigmatization of students on the autism spectrum in light of the recent media reports:
- Make sure staff understand the above quotes from recent autism organizations in response to this situation. Tell staff where to go with student specific concerns or questions on this subject.
- Address any student’s fear of another student with ASD. Find out what the fearful student believes to be true. Mitigate any unfounded fears with facts. Also assure the fearful student that staff will keep all students at your school safe. Check in with this student periodically to ensure his/her fear has been alleviated and if not, refer on for proper counseling to address the situation.
- If concerns related to the Sandy Hook School shooting comes up at your school be open about it with the students.
- Instruct staff to watch for and report any teasing or bullying of students with ASD or other disabilities along with not tolerating it and stopping it in its tracks.
- Together we have witnessed a horrifying terror unleashed at one our nation’s schools. It will undoubtedly have many repercussions amongst the surviving school children and staff across the nation. Together we must go forward, ensuring the best outcomes for all students and staff as we ring the bell to start each new school day.
Aspy, R. & Grossman, B. (2011). The Ziggurat Model – A Framework for Designing Comprehensive Interventions for Individuals with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome Updated and Expanded Edition. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Endow, J. (2011). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Henry, S. & Myles, B. S. (2007). The Comprehensive Autism Planning System (CAPS) for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome, Autism, and Related Disabilities: Integrating Best Practices Throughout the Student's Day. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.