SPD Foundation Comments on Newtown Shooter’s Diagnosis of SPD

On February 19, PBS aired an investigative report that stated Adam Lanza, the young man who killed 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut in December, had been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) when he was a child. ABC.com contacted the SPD Foundation the day before the story aired asking us to provide information about SPD. Dr. Lucy Jane Miller explained SPD and the vital importance of support for the individuals and families impacted by this disorder. Read the full story at ABC.com.

Although we deplore the reason SPD has now come into the national spotlight, we appreciate the opportunity to explain SPD, and how parents and their children with SPD need the support of the educational and medical communities.

There is so little information about Adam Lanza’s diagnostic conditions and any treatments he may have received. We want everyone to know that SPD is real and that there are effective treatments. Most important, there is no direct correlation between sensory issues and the type of aggression and violence exhibited by Adam Lanza.



Adam Lanza, the young man who committed the atrocity in Newtown, CT, has been the subject of intense investigation by the media.

Adam was identified with Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD (previously labeled sensory integration dysfunction) as a young child. SPD is a neurological condition that affects approximately 1 in 20 individuals. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.

SPD is not autism or ADHD or anxiety disorder. It is a separate condition, although it can co-occur with a wide variety of other disorders.

Individuals with SPD do not resort to guns and premeditated acts. Some children with SPD do have aggressive symptoms caused by the way their bodies process “fight or flight,” the brain’s natural and automatic response to stressful or dangerous situations. For example, a child with sensory over-responsive SPD (one of the six subtypes) who is bumped from behind standing in line at school may have an instantaneous reflex to protect himself by “fighting” back, causing him to turn around and push or hit the child who bumped him. The child would not harbor anger and “get even” at a later, more opportune, time.


For some children with SPD their natural “fight or flight” response is flight. These children may find social situations too stressful and withdraw. They may have difficulty making friends and playing with others. They are unhappy, but they do not have fantasies about murdering others.


The younger a child is when treatment is obtained, the more flexible the brain is to change. Research shows that SPD can be remediated with appropriate treatment. Treatment must educate/coach the caretakers as well as impact the child’s ability to maintain a calm state, to engage with others, and to respond typically to sensory input.


Recently the American Psychiatric Association’s committee on diagnosis turned down an eighteen-year effort to get SPD accepted into the fifth edition of the diagnostic guidebook, called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). Since 1994, when the previous version of the guidebook was published (DSM-IV), the SPD Foundation has focused on stimulating rigorous research as the method to show that SPD is a real diagnosis, different from other conditions. Clearly, this scientific approach was not enough; an advocacy effort is needed to bring awareness and acceptance of SPD and the need for treatment to parents, teachers and the medical community


Families of children with SPD are suffering. They deserve assistance and support. Three keys to success include: (1) early intervention; (2) parent education and coaching; and intensive treatment (3 to 5 days a week) for several months.


Parents often know when something is wrong or different in their young child. Problems can be identified at pre-school, at medical check-ups, or by comparing a child to the children in other families as well. Personnel at schools know which children are suffering from social isolation and depression. They do not know which students have violent fantasies but they do know those who do not ‘fit’ into school roles, are alone, are bullied, and are unhappy. Society needs to direct resources into these unfortunate individuals and their families.



7 Responses to “SPD Foundation Comments on Newtown Shooter’s Diagnosis of SPD”

  1. Carol Ann Garner says:

    My son was diagnosed with SPD at age 3 1/2 years old by a Developmental Pediatrician out of U.V.A Medical Center. The team spend about 4 hours interviewing us and interacting with Drew. We are forever grateful to them. Drew has received private O.T. ever since. He also sees a Child Psychologist too. Even with all of this support, Drew still struggles every day of his life. He acts out aggressively at times but it is rarely premeditated. Drew is usually reacting because he is heightened by his environment (”fight” response). Drew is without a doubt remorseful after the fact. Thanks to the SPD foundation for creating awareness and working hard to have SPD recognized by the medical community.

  2. Aubrey lande says:

    Thanks for creating this factual response. I know many parents feel that “I am Adam lanza’s mother” feeling; especially for kids on the spectrum.

  3. karin King says:

    Thank you for this fact sheet. I live 2 towns away from Newton Ct and teach preschool. I have had an interest in SPD since working with an OT many years ago. I am very glad to see that you are bringing SPD forward. As with so many illnesses sometimes there is over-reaction once the media gets involved.

  4. Rachel Schneider says:

    This is so great to read! I am a 30-year-old SPD adult, diagnosed in 2010 at the age of 27. I was so angry to see what the media was reporting about SPD, and wrote an open letter on my SPD blog in response: http://comingtosenses.blogspot.com/2013/02/an-open-letter-to-adam-lanza-media-and.html . Now is the time to educate our communities and our loved ones. It’s unfortunate timing, but it’s important we all speak out and protect ourselves, our children, and our diagnosis. It took me 27 years to receive this diagnosis, and I refuse to let the actions of a killer – and the wrongful associations made by the media – turn SPD into something it isn’t.

  5. Lynn Larson, OTR says:

    Thank you for the article on SPD and your comments. As an Occupational Therapist in the school system for 20 years, I have to say that my caseload no longer consists of children with Cerebral Palsy or Down Syndrome. The majority of the children in many schools present with SPD and/or autism spectrum disorder issues. It is critical that we recognize these challenges early and provide the treatment these kids and their families need in order to function within our society.

  6. Susie says:

    Thank you so much for posting this in response to the Adam Lanza situation. I had not heard until now that this boy was diagnosed with SPD. This is such a horror story! I am greatly saddened for Adam, his family, and those he murdered, along with their families. Adam’s family and Adam probably should have had support from others, but it sounds like no one knows the whole family story to know what went wrong. Our 8 year old precious boy also has Sensory Processing Disorder. He is very kind and loving, but occasionally displays small amounts of aggression mostly when he is tired and needs to transition. I agree with the importance the SPD Foundation mentioned of including this disorder in the DSM V as it not only needs proper recognition, but its impact is huge. It is a severely life altering disorder that is both hard on the child and the family, therefore support is so crucial. I also believe that these children should have the opportunity to be homeschooled. We use a tutorial called Classical Conversations that gives us a chance to have our son in a small classroom setting with kids and a tutor just one day a week. This curriculum uses songs, motions, lots of movement, and hands-on in the classroom time that is a great fit for special needs kids like ours. One CC “campus” in Virginia has 70% special needs kids, and it works well for these families. We take our work home with us for the rest of the week, spending our time working on it and driving our son to his therapies and special classes the other days. This is a happy situation for our son, and he is learning well. He is almost at grade level with this approach, and others love our son. We feel much success with the plan that we have implemented. Our nutrition plan by Dianne Craft has also helped much with speech and sensory issues. We have spent much time educating ourselves and others as so many are so unaware of this very unheard of disorder. My husband and I have stopped working and have altered our lives in a major way to accommodate for our son’s disorder. I am curious about possible violence by these kids with SPD and would like to know if violence has occurred in any other kids with SPD. I know our son feels very loved and is very secure. He does not feel isolated or alone at all. We are grateful for all we have learned and all those who have helped lead us in good directions. I feel very badly for the SPD kids who are forced to navigate a school day in a classroom and school that may be terrifying their nervous system. I know my son cannot handle more than six kids in a classroom at a time due to the amount of sounds they make naturally. We use sound dampening earmuffs for him when his environment is too loud and he cannot bear it. I hope we are able to help others as we share our experiences and what we know! Again, homeschooling is a great option. If you wish to check it out, Google Homeschool Legal Defense Association and look for advice on homeschooling a struggling learner.

  7. Julia C. Johnson,OTR/L says:

    I am so grateful as an OT for the SPD foundation in it’s ongoing efforts to help others, support SPD research and explain SPD so others can understand themselves and/or their children. Your response with a fact sheet is so appropriate to this event.

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