While watching to news coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown I heard over and over again “Adam Lanza was autistic” or “Adam Lanza had Aperger’s.” As far as I know a diagnosis has not been confirmed but as a mental health practitioner I became concerned. What if children who have this diagnosis are watching this coverage: Would they be afraid that they may do something like this? Are the parents of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children worried their child could become violent? Stereotypes and generalizations rarely make things better so let’s take a look at ways to help talk to a spectrum disorder child about the recent news coverage and ease some anxiety.
Educate your child about the differences in people with ASD and the presence of co-morbidity. If a child knows s/he is diagnosed with a spectrum disorder there may be an internalization when it comes to negative press about people with ASD. Emphasize that each person with ASD is different. Inform the child there are even people who have other diagnosis in addition to ASD. This other diagnosis may be part of the reason the person became violent, not the spectrum disorder.
Focus on positive role models with spectrum disorders. We all need awesome people to look up to! And children with ASD are no different. Albert Einstein (physicist), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), and Mozart (composer) are all thought to have been affected by ASD. There are also many not-so-famous people out in the world with ASD that are inspirational to your child. Remind your child of any of these people s/he may know.
Encourage your child to talk to you or another adult s/he trusts about thoughts and feelings. No matter how you child appears to react (or not react) to the world, something is being absorbed. Children (with and without an ASD diagnosis) hear and see things that adults do not always acknowledge. There can be an extra challenge in knowing how a child is thinking/feeling when the child has ASD. Having a safe place for expression is important for anyone, but a child with ASD may need a little extra encouragement or help with this task.
Limit the exposure a child with ASD has to negative media. There is evidence to suggest that children with ASD can process and absorb information faster than a “normal” person. A child with ASD may also have a strong ability to pick up auditory stimulus while doing another activity. This can include hearing a television in another room. So be careful what your child could be exposed to, even if you think they are out of earshot or distracted by doing another activity.
Every child with ASD is different so take the child’s individual level of comprehension and understanding into consideration when using these tips. Age and social development may also play a role in how much s/he will be affected by the news and others’ comments. Use your best judgment and do not hesitate to seek professional help when needed.