Unfortunately, in at least one school, a student with Asperger’s Syndrome has already been identified by peers as a potential shooter. This resulted in a “shelter in place” at the school, the presence of as many as 20 police officers and frightened students, school staff and parents. According to a newspaper report, a boy texted his parents that the “student was with the police in the cafeteria”- an undoubtedly terrifying experience for any individual, much less one with AS. This could have ended tragically for the AS student.
What had happened? Other students thought this boy was “strange.” He was a loner and didn’t engage socially with them. He may have said things that seemed inappropriate. He was in the bathroom, and someone thought he heard a gun being loaded. This boy had no gun.
People with Asperger’s by definition don’t have an understanding of social rules and social cues, and fail to engage appropriately in social relationships. Those with NLD miss nonverbal cues to social interaction and understanding. They can be isolated and may seem aloof. While each individual is unique, it might help to make some generalizations about AS and many with NLD. Those with AS might not show facial expression or make eye contact. They may say things that seem inappropriate or even hostile. They may oppose rules or directions that don’t make sense. Typically, those with AS or NLD have difficulty with novel situations. They often are literal thinkers and have trouble with open-ended questions. Some can overreact emotionally when they feel threatened or overstimulated. To fellow students and some school staff, they may seem odd and not fit in. They do not have the background history typical of shooters: torturing animals, fire-setting, disregard for others’ wellbeing and safety. Unlike psychopaths or criminals, most with AS or NLD show remorse.
Confrontation, new situations and overstimulation therefore are extremely upsetting to someone with AS. This could trigger an inappropriate action or extreme emotionality, not due to hostility or psychopathy but to fear. This AS boy was in a novel situation with high tension all around, being questioned by armed police. It might have been noisy with police radios or others talking. What if the student with AS had panicked and lashed out? Can we guarantee that police expecting a shooter would not have responsed with a tragic outcome?
According to the law, a student’s disability or even reasonably suspected disability has to be taken into account in how the student is handled or disciplined. If a student known to have AS or even suspected to have AS or any ASD is accused of being a potential threat, unless he has a gun, a known school staff member should meet with him, not armed police. The AS student should be asked about what had happened by someone he knows in a familiar, non-threatening, quiet setting. He should be asked specific structured questions, not an open ended question such as “What were you doing an hour ago?” If a police officer must be present, he might quietly allow the school staff member to ask questions.
Unfortunately, I know of several students with AS who faced harsh consequences for what could be understandable behavior. A boy who said something perceived as threatening to a fellow student had done so in the context of years of ongoing provocation and teasing by that student. The boy with AS was isolated for the remainder of the school year despite a psychiatrist’s evaluation that he presented no danger. Another boy with NLD didn’t understand that rough-housing at a bus stop was not acceptable at his new school, as it had been in a prior school. He didn’t understand the cues from the other child that this play was unwanted and upsetting. The boy with NLD was charged with assault and also with a hate crime, since the other student was of a different race and nationality. It happened that the boy with NLD had grown up in the country of the other child’s family and bore absolutely no ill will to someone who looked like his old friends. This case wound its way through family court until it was thrown out by the judge at great expense to the family and trauma to the boy.
School administrators and teachers need to appreciate not just that someone has a diagnosis of AS or NLD or these traits, but how this looks in terms of everyday behavior. I suggest that any school staff member not familiar with the general presentation of students with Aspergers read my earlier Psych Central blog, Recognizing Aspergers or NLD. With understanding and a process appropriate for a student with AS, any questions about safety can be answered without creating unnecessary trauma to anyone involved.
Eckerd, M, & Feinstein, A (Spring 2011. Kids With Asperger’s Syndrome, Schools and the Law, Autism Spectrum News, Vol 3, (4), pp 1, 30, 34 .