Newtown Shooter Lanza Had Sensory Processing Disorder


Boy Over-Responds to Food, But Needs Motion

A psychologist mom who did not want her name used, was referred to Miller by her son's occupational therapist. As a baby, her son Michael cried constantly and was difficult to soothe, requiring endless swaddling and lots of movement. Eating seemed to over-stimulate him and he gagged on his food.

"You could never get him swaddled tight enough or push the stroller fast enough," she said. "He would kind of look over my eyes, instead of looking into my eyes."

Michael, not his real name to protect his privacy, was slow learning to talk, and when he did, he used advanced language -- words like "obsolete."

His mother feared her son had Asperger's syndrome. "He spoke in complete sentences really beautifully," the mom said. "He did have this weird intonation with question marks – 'Mommy?' and 'Look over here?' … He wasn't giving eye contact or saying, 'Mommy, I love you."

As a 4-year-old in preschool, he couldn't sit still at circle time, so he stood on his head at the back of the classroom in order to concentrate and answer the teacher's questions. "Everything else became overwhelming," said his mother.

In therapy, which was not covered by insurance because it is not a recognized disorder, the family was taught to "shift to his world" rather than force him to adapt.

The results at the STAR center were "transformational," said the mom. His language "took off" and today, at 8, he is on a swim team. Though Michael knows his body is "different," he seems to be "growing out" of the SPD, she said.

Family stress and anxiety results when children are untreated, according to STAR's Miller. Like Michael and perhaps Adam Lanza, they are often teased "unmercifully" and misunderstood. She said families dealing with SPD have "significantly more stress" than children diagnosed even with bipolar or other psychiatric disorders.

"If the environment is attacking you, you would be nervous, too," she said. Parents like Nancy Lanza need support, and their children need friends, said Miller.

"Anyone who is a loner needs support," said Miller. "That's part of the story here. We need to take a look not just at gun control, but what we can do to reach these children."

Like other professionals, Miller said linking SPD to violence is "absolutely the wrong message to a parent."

"That's such a complicated pathway, and it's multifactoral," she said of what leads a child to be a killer. "But [Adam Lanza] likely didn't get the support.. … Parents are left on their own to defend their children."

The Courant/FRONTLINE report cited other factors that influenced Adam Lanza. His mother took him out of high school his sophomore year and he lost his peer support and special needs psychologist and became more isolated. Police found thousands of dollars worth of violent video games in the family home.

Lanza's parents separated in 2001 and divorced in 2009. He eventually became estranged from his father, Peter Lanza and brother Ryan. His mother, who loved to travel, was spending more time away from their home to foster her son's independence.

He dropped out of Western Connecticut State University where he had taken some classes.

"At one point in 2009 or 2010, he goes off the grid," said producer Koughan. "He is no longer in school and he is staying at home, rarely venturing out of the house. That's where the black hole of information goes. Nancy is not having friends over to the house and no one really sees him until Dec. 14. What happened during that period, we really don't know."

The investigative team was never able to find any reason why Adam Lanza chose Sandy Hook Elementary School to unload three of his mother's firearms on innocent children and then himself.

"There was no indication there was traumatic episode there," said Koughan, who unearthed a photo from Lanza's first-grade class. "He's got a smile that looks more like a grimace -- that could just be a bad photo. But he looked uncomfortable among his classmates."

Go to PBS's FRONTLINE for an online chat today at 2 p.m. ET. about "Raising Adam Lanza."

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