By: CLARK ESTES
Frontline finally aired the findings of its weeks-long investigation into Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, his mother, and his mental health on Tuesday night. Answers were not among the findings.
Okay, that’s exaggerating the situation slightly. In “Raising Adam Lanza,” produced by Frontline and The Hartford Courant, we did learn more about Adam Lanza’s childhood and his mother’s failure in “failing at bringing him out of his little world,” to borrow the words of one Newtown school official. We learned more about Nancy Lanza’s private life and even got to read some of her emails. Perhaps most enlightening of all, we learned more about Adam Lanza’s mental health history, and how that affected his life at home and at school. What’s less enlightening, though, is how this mental health history is related, if at all, to his decision to open fire on a school full of children on that cold December day, two months ago.
Almost as long as we’ve known his name, we’ve known that Adam Lanza struggled with some sort of mental illness. Soon after the shootings, it was reported that Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and many wondered if that was the whole story. Asperger’s, after all, is not typically linked to violent behavior, certainly not the level of violence that Lanza unleashed on Sandy Hook Elementary School, so many wondered if there was something else going on. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis — something must’ve tripped a wire in his brain and made him snap.
Indeed there was something else, but it was none of these conditions. Lanza was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder (SID) as a young boy. This condition essentially heightens sensory perception to the point that they can become overwhelming. It’s possible that this is what a school official was referring to in December when he said that Adam Lanza could not feel pain, though the new information suggests that Lanza felt too much. “For these kids, the volume is turned way high,” Alice Carter, director of the clinical psychology program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, told Frontline. “So what seems reasonable to most people is very overwhelming to them.”
It’s not that simple, though. SID is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), and the medical community is currently at odds over whether it’s actually its own condition or simply symptomatic of another condition, perhaps autism or Aspberger’s. This would explain why Lanza was diagnosed with Aspberger’s after being diagnosed with SID. Again, Aspberger’s is not linked to violent behavior and neither is SID, but there is a chance that it contributed to anger or anxiety problems. “The world is a little less predictable [for kids with SID], because you don’t know when you’re going to go somewhere and something is just going to be too loud, too uncomfortable, too something.” One of Nancy Lanza’s friend recalls how Adam would “become upset” when other kids touched him and would “become angry with them.” Other times, a school official remembered, Adam would have “episodes” and “would completely withdraw.”
So is that it? Adam Lanza didn’t like to be touched, got bullied, got angry and decided to go on a shooting spree? No, it’s not, and it’s still disadvantageous to suggest that Adam Lanza’s mental illness drove him to homicide. Despite knowing a little bit more about the young Adam Lanza, a lot of questions remain about the adult Adam Lanza — the one with all of the articles about Anders Breivik in his room, the one whodestroyed his hard drive before heading to Sandy Hook and, ultimately, the one who killed 26 people in cold blood.
As much as “Raising Adam Lanza” covered, we’re also pretty sure that the mystery of Adam Lanza’s true motives will endure for months if not years if not forever.