Letter from Dr. Kenneth Gelfand

For immediate release: December 18, 2012

An Open Letter to Our Patients, Their Families and the Public

As you no doubt are aware, an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut recently was the scene of a mass shooting. This unspeakable act has created a sense of urgency to take action to prevent a similar incident in the future. One part of the national discussion has been about the availability and accessibility of mental health services for youth who are violent, or showing risk signs for future violence. While the Division of Psychology at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital is supportive of the advancement of such services, it is also our mission to help the families with whom we work to make sense of some of what is being shared in the media in the wake of this tragic event.

Multiple news outlets have been sharing quotes from acquaintances and family members of the suspect, reporting that he suffered from an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), including possible Asperger's Disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorders often are diagnosed by symptoms including mental inflexibility, difficulties with transitions, sensitivity to criticism, socialization concerns, and repetitive (also known as perseverative) behaviors. These individuals often experience heightened difficulties during periods of stress, including aggressive verbal and physical behavior. However, research has failed to consistently demonstrate differences in the rates of violent behavior in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and those who do not have them. Although they may seem socially detached and overly focused on their own self-interests, the vast majority of people on the autism spectrum are able to experience empathy for others, and would find this act just as repugnant as other members of society do.

We may never know the reasons why this individual committed these acts and harmed so many who were so vulnerable, but it is essential that parents of children with ASD and Asperger's try not to make any comparisons between the individual in Connecticut and their own child. Developing research is continuing to provide evidence that parents can be hopeful about the future of their child with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Parents have also asked how to discuss these events with their children. While the amount of detailed information shared will vary based on the age and maturity of the child, parents should avoid transmitting their anxiety about these events to their child. If children begin to fear that they are unsafe in their school, they are at increased risk for anxiety, decreased academic performance and school avoidance behaviors.

Parents should stress to their children that their principal and teachers will work out plans so that they are safe and children can keep their full focus on learning. In younger children, it is important that parents do not provide anything more than vague details of the events in Connecticut to avoid unduly frightening their child. With adolescent children, parents can speak more openly, but they should not assume that their child possesses the emotional maturity to put this event in its proper perspective. Their conversations should still convey the message that these criminal acts may help lead to a safer society in the future.

At Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, we remain committed to providing assessment and treatment services to children and adolescents with a wide range of psychological and medical disorders. For the Division of Psychology, our goal is to identify and comprehensively evaluate children and adolescents who are experiencing psychological distress in a comprehensive manner, and then help to develop an appropriate treatment plan that addresses the specific needs of each child. We remain dedicated to helping our patients manage the difficulties of their child's early years, so these same children can maximize their potential for success as adults in society. By providing help with these goals in mind, it is our hope that we can meaningfully contribute to a future where tragedies of this nature are completely extinguished.

Kenneth Gelfand, Ph.D.
Director of Pediatric Psychology, West Rogers Division
Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital

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