By now most people in the New England area have read about the horrific murder of 15 year old James Alensen, allegedly at the hands of 16 old John Odgren, a special needs student at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Lincoln, Massachusetts. If you haven’t, you can read the story here.
While any story about teenagers committing violent crimes is disturbing, this story in particular hit home for me. John Odgren has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. As the stepfather of a twelve year old with the same condition, seeing this rarely mentioned condition in the newspaper got my attention. You can learn more about this condition at the Asperger’s Disorder Homepage here. There is also a very well done introductory article written by Barbara L. Kirby here.
My concern is that now that the Asperger’s cat is out of the Asperger’s bag, all these kids will be painted with the same brush. I can see the same soccer moms who got peanut butter banned in the school cafeteria marching on their local high school once they find out it has a special needs program that includes (gasp!) Asperger’s kids. I just can’t wait to hear Soccer Mom demanding the removal of Asperger’s kids from her little darling’s school and placing them in a secure facility so they can’t murder anyone else. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will be a peanut butter free facility.
When the shrillness and hand wringing starts, and it will, it will be grossly unfair and uninformed. What Asperger’s kids have in common is a tendency to withdraw into their own little world, but they are not, as a group, violent. Asperger’s kids can tell right from wrong (as can be attested by some of the priceless looks of guilt on my stepson’s face when he screws up.) But Asperger’s kids do suffer from a condition that makes their own life a living hell.
Dealing as I do on a day to day basis with an Asperger’s kid, this is a condition I have become rather familiar with. Asperger’s is being referred to, in the almost daily newspaper articles about this tragedy, as a form of Autism. This is not precisely correct. Asperger’s falls into a larger category known as Autism Spectrum Disorders, although the term PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) is more common in the United States. But it is not Autism in the usual sense of the word. Asperger’s kids (and adults, for that matter) seem to have to very marked traits in common, poor social interaction skills, and a tendency to hyper focus on one or two subjects. It is a difficult condition to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. It is often accompanied by other develepmental dissorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder.
Think about what goes on when you have a conversation with another person. Think about all the non-verbal cues that you instinctively pick up on. Facial expressions and body language are as important to communication as the words themselves. By reading these non-verbal cues, we can gauge to what extent we are being understood, and how effective we are being at maintaining the other person’s interest. A slight frown, or a look of boredom, tells us that perhaps we had either change the subject or at least change the manner in which we are communicating.
Asperger’s kids seem unable to pick up on these non-verbal cues. Furthermore, their tendency to hyper-focus on subjects that other kids do not find terribly interesting, along with this inability to see that they’re not holding their audience’s attention, of brands these kids as “strange” and subjects them to ridicule.
My twelve year old stepson is such a one. Like many Asperger’s kids, he is exceptionally intelligent, but it is a lop-sided kind of intelligence. In his case, his great fixation is Lego’s. He has been in love with them since he was old enough to walk, and as he has grown older his interest in them has grown more intense, and his creations more elaborate. His bedroom looks like Lego City.
Now, considering he wants to be an architect when he grows up, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But unfortunately he has a very difficult time transitioning away from this preoccupation, another characteristic of the Asperger’s child. It’s as though the gearbox in their brain gets stuck in one gear, and they often find transitions of any kind difficult.
He has at various times obsessed over other things that were not as healthy. When he was in first grade, his teacher conducted a class about poison, and more specifically, how to avoid them. This was the basic “don’t drink what’s under the sink” class that gets taught to all first graders. In one of our first warnings that all was not quite right with him, after that class he obsessed over the notion that he might be ingesting poison. EVERYTHING was poison in his mind: his food, his milk, even his bath water were regarded with the deepest suspicion. It got to the point where we even had to taste his food before he would eat it. This went on for about a year before he finally grew out of it.
Unfortunately, this was soon replaced by another obsession: hurricanes. Once again, something he had learned about in school had seized his imagination to the point where he could focus on little else. Even a few clouds in the sky were enough to make him apprehensive, and if there was an actual storm going on he would not leave our side, terrified by the idea that our house would be blown away with him in it. Thankfully, this too passed in time.
This condition becomes very hard for them to live with when they become teenagers. These kids spend a great deal of time in their own little world anyway. When fellow teenagers, with their notorious cruelty and lack of empathy, make them the butt of jokes and forbid them to enter their social circle, the natural reaction of the Asperger’s kid is to retreat even further into this self created world where they find protection from the meanness and cruelty they encounter in the real world. As they retreat further, their behavior becomes even more eccentric, leading to further ostracizing, and it become a vicious cycle.
In my stepson’s case, he just deals with it by building another Lego skyscraper, but John Odgren had a different, darker way of dealing with the world that was hurting him. He became obsessed with knives and, allegedly, killing.
None of this is meant to minimize the death of James Alenson or let John Odgren off the hook. Just because he has Asperger’s Syndrome doesn’t mean he can’t tell right from wrong. He has committed the greatest of all sins, and he will almost certainly pay with his young life. No, he won’t get the death penalty, but is a life sentence with no hope of parole, starting when you’re sixteen years old, really any better?
I know how incredibly difficult and frustrating it can be to deal with an Asperger’s kid. But I do wonder why there was not more concern that a teenager, who is alleged to have roamed the school corridors in a trench coat, in a conscious attempt to emulate the Columbine murderers, supposedly owned a sizable knife collection. I also wonder why, when he allegedly asked his teacher about such subjects as making a bomb, and how “get away with” murder, that no one in the school system thought this worth looking into.
I can’t help but wonder to what extent the system failed him, and by doing so, failed James Alenson. John Odgren had the right to special education, but James Alenson had an even more basic right: the right to come home from school alive. But now one teenager, a child really, is dead, and the other as good as dead.