After Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Matthew Lerner, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, spoke to a commission evaluating Connecticut’s mental health programs. Lerner, one of several experts at the hearing, testified that there is a disconnect between autism and violent criminal behavior.
At SBU, his research focuses on how autistic children connect with people in society and how violence is connected to autism and attention deficit hyper disorder in children and adults. Through this work, he found that connecting with peers is important for children and teenagers with the developmental disorder, since they find it more difficult.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “around 1 in 88 American children [are] on the autism spectrum—a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years.”
And according to Autism Speaks, one social challenge autistic children have is the lack of an ability to connect with peers—research has shown these children to be more attached to their parents. The organization’s website goes on to say that affected children also have trouble expressing emotions.
“The purest definition of what autism is, is a problem that disrupts the ability to have those connective moments that many people take for granted,” Lerner said.
His research and clinical studies at Stony Brook focus on autistic children and teenagers as opposed to adults because children are not fully developed mentally. Therefore, the trials he conducts can have long-term benefits on how people with autism react socially.
Lerner said this is important because “students feel misunderstood and rejected,” and as the children get older, the “influence of parents diminishes, and the influence of peers increase.”
This is a topic he said he has been interested in much longer than the 10 years he has scientifically been looking into it. When Lerner was in middle school, a family friend’s son had Asperger’s syndrome. Lerner was interested and built a relationship with the boy by playing and interacting with him.
To this day, Lerner said that he still has that relationship and that the boy served as an inspiration to him. “Even people that have a challenge connecting to the social world can if someone is willing to listen,” he said.
The most rewarding part of his job is the feeling he gets when he sees autistic children beginning to build relationships with other people. “When kids come up to me and say, ‘Matt this is all I have been looking for,’ that will get you up in the morning,” he said.