By Judy Endow, MSW
Autistic Global Initiative

Due to the media speculation that Adam Lanza, the suspect in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy and others, may have been affected with Asperger Syndrome, concern has developed on several fronts. Of immediate  concern is fear that students returning to school who have been previously identified with having an Autism Spectrum Disorder may now be stigmatized, especially those who may exhibit meltdown behaviors in the educational setting.

The politically incorrect question on everybody’s mind is, “Are students with ASD dangerous when they have meltdowns and might this behavior lead to another Sandy Hook kind of incident at our school?”

Some general response in news media include:

More Protocol

In my work with school districts across country and into other countries this is the protocol I use when asked to evaluate and recommend a plan of action for students with ASD who have severe meltdown behavior:

  1. Ensure an interactive visual schedule and implementation of sensory regulation based on individual sensory needs is implemented for 2-4 weeks to stabilize the student. (Endow, 2011) Often times once regulation needs have been met and the student is stabilized most of the behavior fades away.
  2. If some meltdown behavior remains evaluate whether behavior is escalating in nature or not.
  3. Use Outsmarting Explosive Behavior (Endow, 2009) or a similar system to map out the stages of escalating behaviors. This is important because the explosive behavior is best prevented the earlier it is noticed. Once at the height of the behavior the fight or flight response has been triggered, making it impossible to persuade the individual stop the behavior. Nobody acting off survival instinct will be able to stop a behavior they are using regardless of what you do to try to get them to stop. If you understand the stages that come before the explosion stage you will be able to intervene. The earlier you notice the more likely you can support and intervene for successful outcome.
  4. If behavior is not escalating in nature do a Functional Behavioral Assessment and proceed with that protocol.
  5. Use tools like the Ziggurat Model (Grossman & Aspy, 2011) and the Comprehensive Autism Planning System (Henry & Myles 2007) to provide comprehensive evaluation, purposeful meaningful support, and optimal implementation of support strategies across the school day.

Avoiding Stigmatization

  • Make sure staff understand the above quotes from autism organizations in response to this situation. Tell staff where to go with student specific concerns or questions on this subject.
  • Address any student’s fear of another student with ASD. Find out what the fearful student believes to be true. Mitigate any unfounded fears with facts. Also assure the fearful student that staff will keep all students at your school safe.  Check in with this student periodically to ensure his/her fear has been alleviated and if not, refer on for proper counseling to address the situation.
  • If concerns related to the Sandy Hook School shooting comes up at your school be open about it with the students.
  • Instruct staff to watch for and report any teasing or bullying of students with ASD or other disabilities along with not tolerating it and stopping it in its tracks.
  • Together we have witnessed a horrifying terror unleashed at one our nation’s schools. It will undoubtedly have many repercussions amongst the surviving school children and staff across the nation. Together we must go forward, ensuring the best outcomes for all students and staff as we ring the bell to start each new school day.

The Autism Research Institute’s Statement on Rights, Discrimination, and the Need for Social Change

The Americans with Disabilities Act is meant to protect the disabled — yet the unique problems presented by the increasing numbers of those on the ASD spectrum stand unaddressed.

The Autism Research Institute calls on governments, corporations, and community agencies to help people with autism thrive and feel accepted as part of society, rather than be subjected to blanket discrimination and exclusion stemming from widespread ignorance.

Three fundamental areas in which much progress must be made are:

  • Education – Students on the autism spectrum are entitled to appropriate instruction. Currently, most teachers do not receive adequate training on how best to teach these students, and many children with ASD are marginalized by school systems.
  • Healthcare — The healthcare system and the often-adversarial insurance corporations present huge obstacles which nearly all parents of ASD individuals must fight to overcome. ARI implores the medical community to acknowledge the expanding body of scientific literature documenting the gastrointestinal and chronic immune problems that plague a great percentage of individuals with ASD. The insurance industry must end its financial discrimination against these families, by allowing GI and other medical treatment to be covered rather than excluded.
  • Government Assistance Programs — Most communities offer few or no services as ASD children become ASD young adults. Those agencies that offer adult services typically don’t teach staff how to best handle the needs and behaviors of people with ASDs. ARI calls on governments and on major corporations to create programs aimed at helping young adults with job training, special living situations, and general help for the 1 in 150 (according to Centers for Disease Control estimates, 2007) soon to reach the edge of adulthood, so these individuals can become productive, independent members of society. Our concern is not only for these individuals and their families, but for the economy of the 21st century and the country as a whole.

The Autism Research Institute urges and promotes awareness, education and sensitivity on the part of governmental agencies, elected officials, corporations and businesses, the media, school boards and community organizations. Individuals with autism can never fulfill their maximum potential if they are excluded and ignored. Society must re-evaluate its perception and treatment of individuals on the autism spectrum, and provide them with the same respect, services and opportunities accorded everyone else.

Aspy, R. & Grossman, B. (2011). The Ziggurat Model – A Framework for Designing Comprehensive Interventions for Individuals with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome
Updated and Expanded Edition. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Endow, J. (2011). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go.Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Henry, S. & Myles, B. S. (2007). The Comprehensive Autism Planning System (CAPS) for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome, Autism, and Related Disabilities: Integrating Best Practices Throughout the Student’s Day. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

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