What Nancy Lanza didn’t know: Reflections on Newtown ten years later

Nancy Lanza had  $240,000 a year in child support/alimony from Peter Lanza and still chose to go it alone, devoting herself to her son, and be a stay-at-home mom. This is the real tragedy. Unlike most families who cannot afford the services her son needed, she had the resources and Peter seemed at least financially willing to do what needed to be done.

I have nothing but compassion for Nancy as she tried to stick by her increasingly more isolated and emotionally disturbed son. Did he have many of the attributes of a young man with Asperger’s? Definitely. And we should not run from that fact but seek understanding.  

We know these kids are using the victims  and Adam  in no way represents Autism/Asperger’s, but the profiles of these kids who have done these shootings are similar in that they were isolated socially and had extreme focusing abilities, often screen addictions, combined with some kind of emotional disturbance.

These are some of the areas that cause deep depression with these kids:

  • Loneliness (terrible sense of isolation) and feeling they don’t belong
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Sensory overload (lack of a proper nutrition, sleep, and sensory diets)
  • Lack of self-care regimen
  • Lack of sunlight and vitamin D
  • Being in enclosed spaces and lack of appreciation and connection with nature and fear of leaving a space of comfort
  • Inability to self-soothe
  • Inability to self-regulate
  • Lack of self-acceptance: Feeling that you cannot be yourself
  • Unrealistic thought patterns about the way life is supposed to be and how others live in the world
  • Failure to live up to over-scrupulous and rigid adherence to unattainable religious and other doctrines and practices
  • Hyper-focused on the negative: Inability to see the beauty in the small things around you
  • Buildup of clutter and unfinished tasks from lack of executive function skills
  • Inability to finish projects that are started
  • Overwhelming sense of separation and disconnection
  • Intellectual superiority. Believing that you can think your way out of any situation on your own
  • The belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness

The problem is when parents allow their own lives to collapse around a child like this and feed the special interests but do not require any socialization, therapy, or other activity out of the home, the situation festers and the individual continues to implode. At an early age, parents often learn to give in rather than force issues with these kids  and let them have their way. Because these kids have a combination of hyper-intelligence with hyper-sensitivity, if they move in a negative direction they can plan and execute with huge consequences. They are also capable of amazing positive work and results if channeled in that direction.

Nancy tried to be “self-reliant”, “independent”,  and take care of her own. While it is very noble to be very protective and hands on, it feeds the problem. Not only does it deprive her of a real life outside the home (calm mom, calm child), but it also fed into the social dysfunction of her son. 

Taking anyone who has such a troubled personality to target shooting as a social outlet is obviously the wrong choice. People on the spectrum often obsess on special interests and this is not a good one to have. Having some kind of thought disorder and mental illness combined with this extreme focusing ability can produce baleful results.

So, pulling him out of high school and letting him take up residence in the basement just heightened his sense of alienation and his thought disorder. In adolescence these kids either implode or explode. I say that all imploders eventually become exploders. Who knows what kind of bullying he went through  and what effect that had on him at an early age? The vast majority of the time kids are the victims and not the perpetrators.

It is easy to judge what Nancy and Peter should have done. Individuals with Asperger’s traits often push away those trying to get close to them. Boys like Adam need authority figures in their lives. Adam needed his father and brother on a regular basis to take him out of his lair and expose him to safe activities where he could experience life. Yet both of them seemed to disappear from his life at the same time.

The solution is not more guns in schools or more police to solve this problem. We need two things:

Knowledge and understanding of what to do in situations when you are dealing with socially reclusive kids like this early on.

Open access to the important services that kids like Adam Lanza needed  for families who cannot afford them

After the precedent was set with Adam that he would not be required to do anything outside the home and that most things in the home worked around him and his needs and sensory and social issues, the problem slowly becomes  intractable. After maybe years of getting his way and bullying his mom, even to the point of violence, Nancy started to look for solutions. It is not unlikely that she had been told by her friends that she needed to do something.

So, when Nancy threatens or talks about putting him in a program or making him get services outside of the home, this is a huge threat to a young man like this. Fear of change is a huge issue that allows people to hibernate and retract.

What are the services that if provided could have alleviated this situation and prevented this tragedy? Everyone is talking about mental health services, and that is all well and good. Given the depth that the situation had sunk to, at that point he would probably have had to be removed by ambulance to a hospital where he could be evaluated and stabilized on medication. It seems that there were incidents of some kind of violent behavior by him directed toward his mom in the home previous to this explosion. Any of these could have been used for a psychiatrist to order an evaluation.

But let’s step back and talk about prevention before situations like this build up into a crisis. What are the proactive services that could help prevent this in the first place? Here are four of the top ones:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy with a good therapist or psychologist.  This could even be done by Skype initially if the student is too shy to come to the office, but that is not preferred. CBT helps the student to erode the underlying rigid belief systems based on fallacious reasoning that keep them from trying new strategies.  Solitary self-appraisal does not work. It’s human nature to justify our actions or lack thereof. This would help students like Adam understand the erroneous premises and foundations upon which his irrational thoughts were built and help him to have a clearer understanding of how his actions effect  himself and others.

Social Thinking sessions, in a group or individually at first, could have helped Adam understand the non-verbal  behavior of others and learn how to have reciprocal conversation skills; how to respond to others in various situations and take the edge off his lack of socialization.

Social Mentors such as college or graduate students trained to work with young students with learning differences could help Adam enjoy his legitimate special interests while having someone to confide in and to learn the social graces from. A social translator of sorts who can be a bridge from isolation to the world outside his home.

A wellness coach who could help Adam do some sensory and physical activities that he might enjoy in order to relieve the pressure in his brain from his obsessive thoughts, a sort of “cool down of the nuclear power plant core.” Having a physical outlet can relief  a lot of anxiety and depression. And God knows Adam needed to get out of that basement into the light.

Other strategies that could have helped in this process to take the pressure off and integrate and develop the positive qualities of a student with learning differences and mental difficulties:

  • Relationship development classes and strategies
  • Having a pet to care for
  • Equine therapy
  • Taking regular vitamins, especially D
  • Giving oneself permission to ask for help
  • Wellness plan for eating healthy foods and a sleep diet
  • Meditation and yoga
  • Sensory diets with swimming or acceptable physical exercise
  • Commitment to trying new activities, reading other books and materials, and trying new foods, films, etcetera.
  • Keeping a daily gratitude journal or box
  • Reading books like The Power of Positive Thinking, etcetera
  • Joining a social group or church group
  • Doing community service to help others and help shift one’s focus from self to others, get out of your own head and develop empathy for others less  fortunate than you
  • Being out in nature
  • Developing spiritual values and understanding

These are just a few of the areas that could be worked on that could have prevented this situation from becoming lethal. Probably any one of them by itself might have prevented the problem from occurring.

During my own divorce—more than 20 years ago—and before my diagnosis, I was living in our basement apartment in our home and playing Sinéad O’Connor’s song “Nothing Compares to You” over and over again and getting more and more depressed. I felt like I was sleeping in my coffin and had no clue what to do about it. I was festering and getting worse and worse and pushing everyone out of my life. Fear and depression took over. For some reason I went to an Al-Anon meeting—as I had alcoholism in my family growing up—and people listened to me and I kept going and things slowly got better and I went to therapy and things got even better . If left in that basement to fester, I may have burned down my x-wife’s new house, as my thoughts were obsessing about it.

Having had a sister with ADD and mental illness, a brother who was a psychiatrist and who had Asperger’s Syndrome, and another sister who had high-functioning autism . . . all of whom committed suicide . . . I saw what doesn’t work. Each one of them was isolated due to circumstances or choices and had no way to communicate what they were feeling. No mentors or friends to reach out to.

I also learned after my diagnosis that self-care is the most important thing you can teach these kids. Cognitive flexibility is so important, but you cannot achieve it unless you have an individual who has a good sleep diet, is eating healthy meals, has some form of sensory diet to release their physical energy, and is at the same time learning the rules of social engagement and receiving the counseling to help them make good decisions and work through any childhood trauma or bullying. 

God rest Nancy’s soul. It is sad to see a teacher with all the resources she had let this situation continue to the point that it did. We can only hope that parents will not wait for friends’ and family members’ feedback to take action when they are in situations like this.

Putting a retired policeman in our schools is not the solution. They would just be the first one shot. We must continue to focus on the preventive strategies that will help our students and use our political clout to make that happen.

About Michael P. McManmon, EdD – Dr. McManmon is the founder of the College Internship Program (CIP), which serves college-aged students with learning differences and Asperger’s Syndrome in six centers across the US. CIP’s goal is to prepare young men and women with skills for life, for college, for work, and for independent living. Dr. McManmon was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at 51 years of age. His personal struggles and ensuing victories and those of his students and staff have inspired his new book “Made for Good Purpose”.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Michael P. McManmon
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