Our own Dr. Amy Saborsky, a clinical psychologist specializing in child and developmental psychology at Center for Integrated Behavioral Health, was recently featured in a Psychology Today blog  discussing her research and clinical experience in the assessment and treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Recent tragedies in our country, such as the Sandy Hook school shootings, have focused the national conversation on effective mental health treatment. On the surface this is a positive response to the pain of such a traumatic event. Although violence occurs in our country daily, school shootings threaten the very fabric of our culture, questioning the safety and security we generally feel sending our children off to school each morning. As with any traumatic experience, it is quite natural to respond with an increased vigilance and attention to potential threats, one of our innate survival traits as human beings. Our vulnerability however, is to over-evaluate threat where one does not exist, and our use of heuristics (mental short cuts) biases our ability to accurately perceive danger. Think harmful stereotypes that have developed throughout our history. The media focus on these events further complicates matters, as the loss of control we feel in response to these unspeakable tragedies evolves into conversations designed to regain the control believed to be lost. Consequently, erroneous media reports have associated many mental health conditions with violence, further stigmatizing those whose suffer from mental health problems. The unfortunate consequence is more people avoid treatment, fearful of being misunderstood and labeled. Dr. Saborsky comments on the erroneous media reports linking autism spectrum disorders with violent outbursts.

“Over the course of my experience, I’ve met and worked with several children, adolescents and adults who have diagnoses of either Asperger’s, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, and Autism. All of these disorders would now fit under the DSM-V diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“While with some cases, I’ve seen minor aggression, usually involved with a temper tantrum, I have never known an individual with ASD who was truly violent. At least not in a way that was as horrific as what Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook Elementary. Most of the time, the aggression I witnessed was related to avoidance of a task or attention seeking behavior. Usually it involved hitting, and most of the hitting was superficial.

“I’m sure there is a possibility that another individual with ASD could perform such a heinous crime as Lanza, but in my experience, the risk is relatively low.”

“Additionally, there is the idea that people with ASD are completely lacking emotion and remorse; this is simply not true.”

Additional research appears to support Dr. Saborsky’s experience and is cited in the Psychology Today Blog. My hope is tragedies such as Sandy Hook can further focus our efforts on better understanding mental health and emphasizing compassionate and evidence-based care.