Entries in Newtown (6)


Newtown Shooter Adam Lanza Had Sensory Processing Disorder

Courtesy PBS(NEW YORK) -- From the time he was little, Adam Lanza couldn't bear to be touched.  By middle school, the chaos and noise of large, bustling classrooms began to upset set him.  At 20, just before the Newtown, Conn., shootings, he was isolated and, the world would later learn, disturbed.

All this was revealed in "Raising Adam Lanza," an investigative report by the Hartford Courant in partnership with the PBS news program FRONTLINE, which aired Tuesday night.

Before the age of 6, Lanza had been diagnosed with a controversial condition, "sensory integration disorder" -- now known as sensory processing disorder -- according to the report.

Those with sensory processing disorder or SPD may over-respond to stimuli and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound or food unbearable.  They may also under-respond and feel little or no reaction to pain or extreme hot and cold.  A third form involves sensory motor problems that can cause weakness and clumsiness or delay in developing motor skills.

Whether SPD is a distinct disorder or a collection of symptoms pointing to other neurological deficits -- most often anxiety or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- has been debated by the medical community for more than two decades.

No one will probably ever know why Lanza shot his mother four times in her own bed, then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School to slaughter six women and 20 first-graders before taking his own life on Dec. 14, 2012.

But this report, the most detailed account to date on his troubled life, paints a picture of a child coping with special needs and a mother, "devoted but perhaps misguided," struggling unsuccessfully to help.

"The most surprising thing for me was this sort of inwardness of Adam, a world view of someone that was afraid of the world," said show producer Frank Koughan.  "He just reacted badly to the whole world and didn't want to be part of it.  He was not some violent monster, except on one particular day, when he was exceedingly monstrous."

The investigative team interviewed family and friends of the shooter's parents, Nancy and Peter Lanza, and reviewed a decade's worth of messages and emails from his mother to close friends, describing her son's socially awkward behavior.

"Adam was a quiet kid.  He never said a word," Marvin LaFontaine, a friend of Nancy Lanza, told them.  "There was a weirdness about him and Nancy warned me once at one of the Scout meetings … 'Don't touch Adam.'  She said he just can't stand that.  He'd become teary-eyed and I think he would run to his mother."

In 1998, the Lanzas left their home in New Hampshire for Connecticut with Adam, who had already been diagnosed with the sensory disorder and was "coded" with an individual education plan, according to a family member who did not want to be identified by FRONTLINE.

"It was somebody well-placed who was completely in a position to know," said Koughan, 45, a veteran journalist who produced the film, Drop-Out Nation.

Adam didn't recognize pain, another feature of some types of SPD.  He couldn't cope with loud noise, confusion or change, which would cause him to "shut down," according to the report.

"He'd almost go into a catatonic kind of state, which is another reason why in hindsight, he didn't seem like a threat to anybody," said Koughan.  "He didn't lash out or beat up kids.  He went within himself, until one day he didn't."

In middle school, according to an interview with Richard Novia, who served as security chief for Newtown schools and advised the tech club, Adam was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a part of the autism spectrum.  Novia told Nancy he worried about the boy being bullied.

Asperger's can be linked to or confused with SPD, but neither condition is associated with violence, mental health experts tell ABC News.  But they suggest the complexity of anxiety and alienation in a child could shed light on other factors that may have set Adam up for a breakdown.

"What it sounds like to me is you have a kid who probably had what has been described really well as social anxiety," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist who specializes in development and behavioral disorders, including autism, at UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland.

"These behaviors [described by the FRONTLINE report] could have set him up for being bullied and somewhat ostracized and made fun of by his peers," he said.  "With a certain type personality, he could ruminate on it and get stuck.  Maybe he got angry and took the wrong road.  But why did he not go after his peers, not little kids?"

As for Asperger's syndrome, Wiznitzer said of Adam, "There is insufficient data … We don't know who diagnosed him."

Sensory processing disorder is a controversial condition.  Just this year, its submission to the American Psychiatric Association for inclusion in the 2013 Diagnostic and Standards Manual (DSM V) was rejected.

Wiznitzer says there are no distinct criteria for diagnosing SPD and that it masks other distinct conditions like anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and ADHD, which can be treated with conventional drugs or cognitive therapy.

As for Adam, he said, "You have no idea what it was like at home -- a person with extreme anxiety keeps very quiet in the outside world.  Sometimes with anxiety-based behavior -- and I am not saying he had this -- if he had a change in how he was functioning, it could lead to a thought disorder."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Newtown Shooting Puts Spotlight on US Mental Health Care -- Again

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- It has not yet been confirmed whether Adam Lanza had been diagnosed with mental illness, but the 20-year-old, who murdered his mother, then drove to a Newtown, Conn., elementary school and gunned down 20 first-graders and six adults, has again shined the spotlight on care for the mentally ill in the United States, and has many asking whether yet another mass shooting could have been prevented.

Despite four shooting rampages since President Obama took office in 2009, mental health care continues to be hampered by budget cuts, closures, battles with insurers and stigma, doctors said.

"We have very good treatments for mental illness that are highly effective," said Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association.  "But they're not widely available.  People don't have ready access to them."

Since the recession forced budget cuts in 2009, state general funding for mental health care has decreased by an estimated $4.35 billion nationwide, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, which serves 6.8 million patients a year.

Since 2009 alone, 3,222 psychiatric hospital beds are no longer available to patients, and another 1,249 may disappear soon because of proposed closures, according to the association.  That's about 10 percent of all state psychiatric hospital beds gone in about three years, said Dr. Robert Glover, the association's executive director, who said he'd never been more worried.

"This is the worst I've seen it," Glover, who's worked in mental health for almost five decades, said about the cuts.  "They are painful, and unbelievably tough.  I am incredibly worried about future cuts with the fiscal cliff and state budgets not getting better."

One in five American adults reported suffering from mental illness within the past year, with one in 20 reporting serious mental illness that resulted in "functional impairment," according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's latest annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health Report.

Despite its prevalence, mental illness is something patients and those around them have tried to ignore dating as far back as World War I, when soldiers were called cowards for showing signs of what we now know was post traumatic stress disorder, Lieberman said.

Today, the largest mental health facilities are for inmates at the Los Angeles County Jail in California, Cook County Jail in Illinois and Rikers Island in New York, Lieberman said.

According to the Bureau for Justice Statistics, 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of jail inmates had mental health problems in 2006.  Between 10 percent and 20 percent of those with mental health problems had symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions or hallucinations.

Most mentally ill patients aren't dangerous, but it's very difficult for psychiatrists to predict who will become violent, said Dr. Carol Bernstein, a psychiatry professor at NYU Langone Medical Center.

The high number of prisoners with mental illness is a mark of the failures of the current mental health care climate, because the mentally ill wind up behind bars before they can get treatment, Lieberman said.

"We haven't provided these people with what they need," said Lieberman.  "What we're seeing here now is, 'Uh, oh people have mental health problems.  We need to pay attention to mental illness now.'  But it's a too little, too late kind of reaction to this. ...Whatever it takes is worth it, but this is kind of late in the game."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Shooting Survivors Should Be in School, Psychologist Says

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Connecticut school officials' plan to get survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting back together at a new school is exactly the right decision, says a youth trauma psychologist.

Authorities announced on Monday that the Newtown, Conn., elementary school where 26 people, including 20 children, were gunned down, will be closed "indefinitely," but Sandy Hook students and staff could be back in classes at nearby Chalk Hill School in Monroe, Conn., by this week.

"It's a good idea that kids go back to school as soon as possible and normalize and get...accustomed to a routine," said psychologist Susan Lipkins.  "You want to make it as familiar and easy as possible so the transition is as smooth as possible for teachers, faculty and the children."

Most children do not understand death; they understand that their parents and teachers are upset and draw on those emotions, Lipkins said.  She believes it was the right decision to have the students return to classes, especially before the Christmas break, because it will help them adapt to the new situation.

"If they didn't have school this week that really would give the children too much time to get accustomed to being at home...and it would increase their likelihood of developing phobias," she said.

Lipkins also agreed with the decision to have Sandy Hook remain closed because going back to the scene of the massacre would have been "too traumatic" for everyone.

"I think that the scene is too extreme and that it would be very hard to erase the memories," Lipkins said.  "It's really good for everybody to have their normal routine but to have those physical manifestations would make it probably more stressful."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Siblings of Sandy Hook Victims Face Trauma, Survivor's Guilt

Douglas Healey/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Six-year-old Arielle Pozner was in a classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School when Adam Lanza burst into the Newtown, Conn., school with his rifle and handguns.  Her twin brother, Noah, was in a classroom down the hall.

Noah Pozner was killed by Lanza, along with 19 other children at the school, and six adults.  Arielle and other students' siblings survived.

"That's going to be incredibly difficult to cope with," said Dr. Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York.  "It is not something we expect her to cope with today and be OK with tomorrow."

As the community of Newtown begins to bury the young victims of the school shooting on Monday, the equally young siblings of those killed will only be starting to comprehend what happened to their brothers and sisters.

"Children this young do experience depression in a diagnosable way, they do experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  Just because they're young, they don't escape the potential for real suffering," said Rahil Briggs, a child psychologist and professor at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

Arielle and other survivor siblings could develop anxiety or other emotional reactions to their siblings' death, including "associative logic," where they associate their own actions with their sibling's death, Howard said.

"This is when two things happen, and (children) infer that one thing caused the other.  (Arielle) may be at risk for that type of magical thinking, and that could be where survivor's guilt comes in.  She may think she did something, but of course she didn't," Howard said.

Children in families where one sibling has died sometimes struggle as their parents are overwhelmed by grief, Howard noted.  When that death is traumatic, adults and children sometimes choose not to think about the person or the event to avoid pain.

"With traumatic grief, it's really important to talk about and think about the children that died, not to avoid talking and thinking about them because that interferes with the grieving process," Howard said.

Children may also have difficulty understanding why their deceased brother or sister is receiving so much -- or so little -- attention, according Briggs.

"I think one of the most challenging questions we can be faced with as parents is how to 'appropriately' remember a child that is gone.  So much that can go wrong with that," Briggs said. "You have the child who is fortunate enough to escape, who thinks 'Why me?  Why did my brother go?'  But if you don't remember the sibling enough the child says 'it seems like we've forgotten my brother.'"

"They may even find themselves feeling jealous of all the attention the sibling seems to be receiving," Briggs said.

Parents and other adults in the family's support system need to be on alert, watching the child's behavior, she said.  Children could show signs of withdrawing, or seeming spacy or in a daze.  They could also seem jumpy or have difficulty concentrating in the wake of a traumatic event.

It will be vital in the next weeks for parents of surviving siblings to return the surviving child to a normal routine, including regular meals, sleeping and physical habits, Howard and Briggs said.

If a child's appetite or sleeping habits change, or if they show any regressive behaviors, including wetting the bed or trouble separating from their parents, it may time to seek professional help, experts said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Teachers, Students Grappling with School Security After Conn. Shooting

John Coletti/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Teachers and students across America are confronting the issue of safety and security in the classroom today after a weekend of grappling with the deadly massacre at a grade school in Newtown, Conn.

"It's very important that we address their concerns [about safety]," teacher Lauren Marrocco of New Jersey said.  "I think my students will have a lot of questions and, as adults, we don't have answers to those questions."

Near Newtown, one teacher's weekend homework for students was simple: Go home and hug your loved ones.  In California, another educator wrote, "I'll be locking my [classroom] door this week to make my students feel safer."

For many, Monday morning's school drop-off will be a difficult but necessary start to the day.

"I'm not too worried about her, I'm more worried about how I feel and how I'm going to let go of her hand when she gets on the bus," a parent told ABC News.

In Fairfax County, Va., schools sent notice that they would be upping security, not for any specific threat but to alleviate anxiety.

Dr. Steven Marans, head of the National Center of Children Exposed to Violence at Yale University's Child Study Center, said that falling into normal routines can provide comfort.

"One of the ways of demonstrating that their lives are secure and reliable is to have them disrupted as little as possible," he said.

Marans says it is also important not to avoid discussing Friday's events, where 20 children and six adults were killed before Adam Lanza took his own life.

"We need to acknowledge that we all have big feelings," he said.  "This is very sad.  This is an opportunity for kids to put into words what their thinking about."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Shooting Trauma Affects Kids, Adults Differently

Douglas Healey/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Traumatic events such as the deadly  shooting at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday, can affect children and adults in different ways.
Adults often gorge on media images -- trying to glean facts, gain perspective, to make sense out of a senseless event.

But for children, it can have the opposite effect.

After the deadly rampage at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., psychologists and pediatricians are strongly urging parents to shield their school-age children from too much exposure to the news.

"For really young children, they can be confused and think that this is happening over and over and over again," said Jamie Howard, a clinical child psychologist and trauma expert at the Child Mind Institute in New York. "They don't necessarily know that it's on a loop, And that would be really scary.

"For older kids who are around 8, 9, 10, they might sort of be inundated with anxiety and people's fear and people's stress," Howard said, "and it could overwhelm their capacity to cope."

Elementary school is supposed to be a safe, innocent place, but the Sandy Hook shooting shatters that notion for parents.

If children are old enough to ask questions, instead of talking to the kids, parents are advised to try just listening.

"Start by asking them: What do you know? What are you feeling?" Howard said. "Ask open-ended questions so that you can start from there. A lot of times we think they want to know lots and lots of information that adults want to know. But children don't necessarily have the same questions or have the same needs."

When they do ask questions, parents shouldn't hide their emotions -- but experts warn parents to try not to be overly emotional in front kids because they get their cues from grown-ups.

"We look to grown-ups to interpret situations for us," Howard said. "It's called social referencing. It's what kids do. So we are all sort of being watched. And kids are looking to us to let them know: How should we be reacting to this?"

It's understandable that parents are emotional, but Howard suggests grown-ups should share our sadness and our fears with other adults and not let children eavesdrop on those conversations.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio