In the wake of the overwhelmingly tragic slaughter of innocent elementary school students and heroic teachers and educational professionals on Friday in Newtown, Connecticutt, there has been much discussion of the shooter and his Asperger's Syndrome. One controversial piece entitled, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" was written from the perspective of a mother who fears her 13-year-old son may be headed towards Adam's path.
The mother in the article doesn't seem to be talking about Asperger's, but I mention it because it inspired this piece. According to every news account I've heard - and there have been many - Adam Lanza was an Aspie. Mr. Lanza may or may not have had other mental health issues. However, the article linked above made me ponder why I am NOT Adam Lanza's mother.
I have a beautiful, brilliant 21-year-old son. And yes, he's always been bright. We always knew he was bright. When he was in elementary school we learned how bright Zack was - school psychologists tested him and found that he has a genius-level, MENSA-grade IQ. Why did he get tested? Because Zack was always different.
Those differences weren't so apparent in Kindergarten. All kids are learning their way at that age. But it didn't take long for little things about Zack to stand out - he always knew the answers but he wasn't always interested enough to give them. He didn't relate to his classmates at their level - he related like a much younger child, despite the fact that he was usually the brightest kid in the room. He didn't follow social cues - like when someone wasn't interested in hearing about his latest obsession or how close you stand to someone when you talk. And he had an intense preoccupation with his feet - no matter what shoes we bought that child he always said his feet were hot. One day I had to leave work to drive to the school to take Zack a new set of pants, socks and shoes -- he'd decided to cool off his feet by putting them under running water in the classroom sink.
Zack was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was in the 6th grade. But teachers at his elementary school were already doing all the right things - when he got too angry or stressed, he was allowed to leave class and go to a special area they set up. It had one of those toys you punch and it bounced back - and a rocking chair. It was adjacent to the nurse's office so he was well monitored. And it worked.
Middle school was especially difficult for Zack because middle school kids are the closest thing to monsters common to average America. Zack's trouble relating to kids increased - he even sounded different, like a walking dictionary. And he had a special speech pattern. Early on I thought neither Zack nor I would survive Middle School - It came to a head after a few weeks when Zack had an unfortunate incident because of a cold he had that resulted in him being sent to a Vice Principal who REQUIRED me to leave work and meet with him. I was told my son was only getting in-school suspension for his anti-social behavior but that the VP could have suspended him. It was the last straw for me, the Mom who loved this kid.
Zack had some tough issues that made him different, but all through school the amount and nature of the bullying he endured and the insults he had to take was astounding. A psychologist who later ran South Carolina's education department told me once that no adult could peacefully tolerate the insults Zack had to take for a single day - including the psychologist. He put up with all that - and had a diagnosed socialization disorder -- and this Vice Principal was talking about suspending him? No. Not dealing with that.
I complained - Aspie parents have to learn early to yell and scream and be impossible to deal with until their child's needs are met. So I emailed the Superintendent of Horry County Schools, copied the principal and asked if the policy next week would be suspending all kids in wheelchairs for not walking down the hall. I happen to be a practicing attorney and signed it with my name, rank and serial number - including my law firm contact information.
That insignificant worm of a Vice Principal's saber-rattling was horrid. But the response of the Horry County School system to my email was immediate, dramatic and life-changing for my son. They formed a whole committee of people to help Zack. We had monthly meetings, made specific plans and the school Principal himself instructed staff that all issues with Zack got brought to him. Yes, a man that busy stopped and made time for my son -- I didn't always agree with him, but I always knew he was competent, caring, dedicated and involved. And you know what else Horry County did for Zack? They hired a SHADOW. Yes, an adult aide who met Zack in the morning, attended every class with him, counseled him, kept him on track, and met with me or his Father every afternoon when we picked him up.
Zack was accepted at the "gifted" high school held on the campus of a local college. Essentially, he attended 4 years of college while he was living at home. He still had a shadow - until he was phased out in Zack's Senior Year to prepare him for college. And Zack learned how to deal with professors while still dealing with the High School teachers who taught the Scholar's Academy program on campus. He graduated as a National Merit Scholar and earned a full-ride scholarship to college - He'll graduate in the Spring with a Mechanical Engineering Degree - With Honors and With Honors in the Major.
So, I am NOT Adam Lanza's Mother. I'm the Mother of a young man who is bright, educated, and who may very well change the world one day -- like some (suspected) Aspies before him did- Perhaps you've heard of Albert Einstein and Bill Gates? The "why" I'm not Adam Lanza's mother is easier to understand now that you've heard my son's story - or a bit of it anyway --
I'm not Adam Lanza's mother for several reasons. First, and foremost, I'm still married to Zack's father. Having a challenging kid can take a toll on any marriage, but we worked to keep our marriage strong and we both supported Zack. Often, my husband had to fight me most of all - Aspies live and exist by rules. And "Daddy" had to make the rules for behavior, consequences and punishment. Daddy had to enforce them. At first, I'd plead on the kid's behalf -- okay, I did it longer than "at first." But my husband remained strong and dedicated and his discipline and consistency defined the boundaries, which never, ever moved. (Aspies need that - consistency. They're true rut people who do NOT deal well with change, however minor.)
So, Zack had his Dad in his corner. He had his Mom too - I took time off work to go to all the meetings, and his Dad came as often as he could, but he had a demanding job. My role was to be the cheerleader and the nurturer. Have you heard the news accounts that Adam's Mom was always upset that she couldn't be affectionate with her son? Zack has more limits and boundaries with that than his youngest brother - but Zack gives and receives hugs aplenty - along with occasional, over-the-top Mommy hysterical joy at airports when he's coming home for a visit.
And Zack had a school system in his corner. THAT"S crucial. I can't say enough about the amazing job that the local school district did in supporting my son. Our schools committed the resources to allow Zack to attend public school - and it built Scholar's Academy. That gifted High School meant that Zack got to be educated in a place where "cool" meant having the best grades and knowing the answers. Every district in America must have a Scholar's Academy for their Aspies to flourish and grow and spread their wings.
The account of what was going on with Adam is still developing, but it sounds like he didn't have the advantages Zack had. I know his father wasn't involved in his daily life, and that alone made it very, very hard for Adam's Mom to raise him well. The importance of a strong, involved father in the life of an Aspie can't be overstated. Having that allowed me to be the Mom who nurtured and supported and hugged. I didn't have to focus on discipline at home, which Dad handled, so I could focus on working with the school and attending all those meetings.
There hasn't been room within this piece for me to do justice to describing what it's like to raise an Aspie. It is important for me to say that Aspies can experience issues with their tempers - but they are not dangerous people. So much of the news makes it sound like Aspies are these uncontrollable fiends -- which is not even remotely in the same universe as the truth. Most Aspies - like my son- are amazing, astonishing and brilliant people.
Aspies are a resource - and like many other resources - they can grow up and change the way we look at science (Einstein) or computers (Gates) or engineering (Graham -- err, soon, very soon). Aspies are "resources" with the tendency to amaze, astonish and alter the way we live our lives. But all such resources are very volatile -- if handled improperly, there can be tragic consequences.
One of the most important lessons of Newtown and Sandy Hook is this -- the first line of success and the last line of defense initiate from the same principals - It takes a strong family working with a school system willing to disregard its bottom line to do its job. And it takes communication and teamwork. But Aspies are brilliant people. If nurtured and supported properly, they can grow up to change the world.
I'm not Adam Lanza's mother and if we learn and apply the lessons of Newtown, there need be no more Adam Lanzas. So when you hear all the talk about Aspies, remember that broad brushes only paint broad strokes. Reality exists in the narrow strokes, as different, and individual as the families all around America blessed to be raising Asperger's kids who will grow up to make us all proud.