Aspergers and Violence - Let’s Stop the Rush To Judgment

Asperger’s, Autism, and Violence or Mass Murder
Let’s Stop the Rush To Judgment

Whenever something horrible happens the public and the media look for answers . . . factoids to explain what may be truly inexplicable.   Whatever information can be discovered is tossed out into public view in the hope that somehow a bunch of discrete facts and data points will somehow provide the answers everyone is seeking.

This happens whether the event is a catastrophic fire, a plane crash, or a mass killing.  Thanks to the Internet, people all over the world speculate about what happened and why, often in the absence of any firsthand information.  The result: a rush to judgment, and all too often - innocent people harmed.

Sometimes these early speculations are prescient.  When reporters observed an aviation mishap and said, “the same thing happened on another flight a few years ago,” that report led to the discovery of a flaw in an aircraft’s design, and the potential saving of many lives when a design defect was corrected.

Unfortunately, on other occasions, early speculation proves unfounded, wrong, or irrelevant.  When that happens, innocent people are often harmed by the rush to judgment.  I’m very concerned that is occurring right now, as the public digests news reports about the Sandy Hook school murders.

Reporters are saying the killer had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism.  Every time a news story does that – by tying “killer” and “Asperger’s” in the same sentence – they are at some level implying that there is a connection between autism and mass murder.   

There’s not.

Statisticians have a phrase for this situation:  Correlation does not imply causation.

Let me explain that by way of an example.  Three banks are robbed, in three different cities.  Each bank had security cameras trained on the entrances.  In each case, a review of the tapes showed a white Toyota Camry turning into the parking lot, moments before the robbery.

Was that a clue?  Was the same car used to rob all three banks?  No.  It was a random, irrelevant coincidence.   In fact, white Camrys are one of the most common cars in the country and we might observe them at the scene of most anything, without any causative connection at all.

How about this factoid:  Most school shooters are Caucasian males.  You might find that statement a little more shocking than the previous one.  But it’s true.  Does that mean every white male Caucasian who enters a school is a potential mass murderer?  Of course not.

Suggesting a mass murderer had Asperger’s is much the same – it may be true, but stating the fact does nothing to explain the crime, nor does it help prevent other crimes in the future.   What it does do – and this is important – is paint a whole swath of population – Asperger people – with a brush that says “potential mass murderer.”

That, folks, is a problem, because the average person does not know enough about Asperger’s to know it does not turn people into mass murderers.   They file that factoid away until the next time they see someone with Asperger’s.  Then, instead of giving him a fair shake, they treat him as a potential killer.  Everyone loses.  As an adult with Asperger’s, who’s seen enough discrimination already, I’m not too happy about that.

What can we do?  There’s no way to “undo” a news story.

Going forward, perhaps the best thing we can do is explore the question:  Can Asperger’s turn a person into a mass murderer?  The simple answer is no.  Here are the reasons why:

Asperger’s is an autism spectrum disorder.  People with Asperger’s typically have difficulty reading the unspoken cues of other people.  You might say we are oblivious to the language of emotion.

Yet we are emotional people.  Many studies have shown folks with autism have very powerful emotions; the problem is, we often can’t express those feelings in ways others can recognize.  Sometimes our responses seem inappropriate (we may smile when you expect us to look sad.)  Other times, an event that triggers a strong emotional response in one person has no visible effect on a person with autism.

Lay people often take those signals to mean we Asperger people don’t have feelings, or we don’t care about them, or that we lack empathy.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

As the definition of autism and Asperger’s says:  This is a communication disorder. It’s not a “lack of feeling” disorder.   In fact, most clinicians who work with people on the autism spectrum will tell you autistic people tend to care deeply for people in their lives, and have a sweetness; a childlike gentleness – something totally at odds with what you’d expect in a cold blooded killer.

There is nothing in the definition of Asperger’s or autism that would make a person think we are a violent group.  That’s reinforced by criminal justice studies telling us that people with autism are much less likely to commit violent crimes than the average person.  Indeed, those studies show autistic people are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

If you’re looking for a group of people to fear, we’re not it.

So where does that leave us, in our quest to understand these most recent killings?

Adam Lanza may well have had Asperger’s.  But that did not make him a killer.  Some other factor was at work.  Just as getting a cold doesn’t protect you from catching measles, having an Asperger diagnosis does not mean you don’t have a host of other issues as well.  One can suffer from homicidal rages, and also be diagnosed with Asperger’s.  Those conditions are not mutually exclusive.

It's also worth noting the studies that have shown how *anyone* may become violent, given the "right" (wrong) set of circumstances.  It's true that people on the autism spectrum have less propensity for violence than the average person, but that does not mean they can't ever become violent.  If violence is a disease, no human is immune.

And that’s not the only possibility.  There are plenty of other frightening and disagreeable combinations in the world of psychiatry.

In fact, a child who grows up with a disability that leads to bullying (like Asperger’s) may develop violent feelings toward his tormenters.  Most times, those feelings stay inside, to the detriment of the victim.  Sometimes, though, the victims strike back.  When that happens I’d say it was the bullying, and not the disability, which turned that person violent.

One day we may have a hard medical test for autism – including Asperger’s.  Until then, it’s diagnosed by observation – a process that is unfortunately more prone to error than we would like.  The Asperger diagnosis attributed to Adam might even have been a mistake; sociopathy can masquerade as mild autism or Asperger’s.

It’s easy to see how the two conditions might be confused.  After all, one is characterized by a weak ability to show feelings, while the other is founded on an absence of feeling within, and a lack of innate moral foundation.  Those two conditions may look very similar, but the outcomes are not. One leads to anxiety, depression, and social failure.  The other may lead to evil, and a much darker place.

I’m not Adam’s therapist, and I have no knowledge of his case, but I would not be surprised if there was quite a bit more to his story.  Much of it may never be known.

I wish I had some simple solutions to propose, so that we might prevent these horrific crimes in the future.  Unfortunately, I don’t.   A reading of history shows us that most rampage killers turned deadly with little or no warning.  Many had no prior history of serious violence and some had no criminal records at all.

Yet there are things we can do.  We can take stronger steps to address bullying, and we can offer counsel to those adults in greatest need.  Many studies have shown that violence is a last resort for people at the end of their rope.  We have the power to give those people a lifeline, so they won’t turn to the gun.

To me, this crime and others like it show the great need for mental health reform.   We have no facility in this country for “mental health checkups,” and we’ve pitifully few lifelines to help those on that slippery slope to suicide or murder, whatever the cause.  If I were to express a Christmas wish here, it would be that our politicians see that failing, and act.

Best wishes for the holiday season,
John Elder Robison

And remember - RAISING CUBBY is coming - March 12, 2013


Valerie said…
How human. We might "better" say that being a white male causes one to become a school shooter - but that's an obvious fallacy. We know too many white males to make that a possibility, and autism is still a great unknown.
Mrs.Britto said…
Thank you Mr.Robison for all that you are and do to educate the world. Here is my most recent FB post:
Monday at the dinner table Cullen says to me, "Mom I need to talk to you in private." After dinner he helps me clean up, Steve leaves to take Kinsey to dance class and Cullen says, "Can we talk now?" We sit down in the living room and he proceeds to tell me that he is worried that kids at school will find out that he has Asperger's and they will think that he too is a murderer. My heart sank, I never imagined that Friday's events would impact my children in this way. It turns out that the kids at school were discussing news reports that Adam Lanza had autism and that scared Cullen. I explained that whether or not he was autistic, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) had nothing to do with this type of premeditated violence. We talked for quite awhile about what steps to take should anyone find out and possibly some things he could say even if they don't find out.

Cullen is not ready to be an advocate for ASD but I'm hoping that you are willing. If you hear reports about Adam Lanza being autistic or having Asperger's please explain to those around you that ASD is not responsible for this kind of violence. People with ASD should not be feared or stigmatized based on the heinous actions of one person. More than 1.5 million people live with ASD and they need your help to responsibly discuss accurate and relevant information.

Thank you and please share!
Dana said…
They file that factoid away until the next time they see someone with Asperger’s. Then, instead of giving him a fair shake, they treat him as a potential killer.

This phenomena has planted itself directly in my path this week.

My son - on the spectrum - had an "altercation" at school on Friday. It can best be described as a territorial "pissing match" between 2 16-year old boys that resulted in NO injuries and lasted all of 7 seconds.

The school has decided he is a danger to the school. I mean - OBVIOUSLY - he is on the spectrum AND he showed aggression. They must get him out of the school before he "breaks" and comes in with guns drawn (this is the first time in his public school career that he has initiated any type of physical aggression).

I have an IEP meeting on January 7th. They have let me know that they will recommend outplacement for him in a self-contained behavior disorder program - a DISASTROUS placement for a kid with Asperger's.

I cannot help but conclude that this is an overreaction based on Sandy Hook. I'm going to have the fight of my life on my hands to keep him where he belongs - in his home school.

It's unfair at best - discriminatory and prejudicial at worst.
Nora said…
Thanks John
It would b lovely if we all had the patience to wait and see what conclusions the FBI can reach on the evidence before going off the deep end but that i not the way humans work. (see page 523 Manual for Homo sapiens LOL)
Meanwhile i hope the fear that many of us have regarding people taking out their frustrations on autistic individuals subsides too. It is hard enough being ASD without this extra fear.
Anonymous said…
Thanks John. Finally, a level head in all this mess.
Forsythia said…
Thank you, John, for your calming words. If only the voice of reason could get through to more people. We don't need any more sensationalism and half-baked nonsense passed off as truth, but 24/7 TV coverage is a monster that must continually be fed. Kristen, Cullen is fortunate to have an understanding mom like you. So is your son, Dana. I hope cooler heads prevail at your IEP meeting. What about his partner in the "pissing match"? Are they considering outplacement for him as well?
Java Chip Lover said…
Thank you Mr. Robison, you have said everything have been thinking since that came out in the news. One of my best friends who happens to be my first love and ex, has Aspergers and has taught me so much in the past few years. Not only about myself, but how people can treat you if you are different. Since we were together I have been trying to show our friends and others that come around him that he is not an evil person, just a little different. I love him so much as a person and wouldn't change him for anything. He is a huge part of why I want to go back to school to teach autistic children, maybe teach others that they are apart of our society and some of the best and loving people I know.
Tammy said…
I am needing help/advice.
I do not know if you read all of your comments that you get but if so I hope you respond. My son was diagnosed with Aspergers by a family physician and a psychologist at the age of around 2/3. He is now 11. I did not educate myself well and basically threw the fact that he even has Aspergers aside. I had no patience for him. I was embarrassed by him in social gatherings and I never spent time with him. I have 5 children and he is the only one I feel I threw to the waste side. I love him and protect him and have even went head on with the school when I found out he was being bullied. I will ALWAYS stand up for him but I have parented him wrong. I have not been that loving mother as I have with my other kids. Not because I didnt want to be but because I never took the time to educate myself, educate him or those around me. I am guilty and as I write this I feel as though I sound like a heartless, unloving mom.

This morning as I was on FB I came across a something about Aspergers and I went on hunt to learn more. I spoke for 2 hrs with a lady who specializes in disabilities and helps find jobs for them. She has job coached many people and helped families cope with their kids who have disabilities including people with Aspergers. She is who told me about you. I babysit her son and this morning when she came I brought up that my son has Aspergers. She was surprised I never told her and I told her I actually forgot until this morning. She wanted to meet him and have a conversation with him just so she could observe him. So she did when he came home from school. She picked up immediately his social awkwardness and how he could not look her in the eye when he would speak to her and vice versa but at the same time she would purposely look away but keep an eye on him with her peripheral vision and he would stare at her as if he where studying her. Trying to figure her out.

Anyway, I need to make a connection with my son. I need to learn to communicate with him on his level how to be a mom who is not one of those "you are to be seen and not heard" moms as I have been in the past.

Which book of yours would you suggest I read first to help me understand my son more and to help me better parent him.

Valerie said…
Tammy, i'll be interested in John's responses too! Meanwhile, you might want to visit some of his links, my friend Sharon's webpages, and maybe my own blog, My son, whom i write about as "Max," is more severely autistic, has just turned 22, and i can definitely identify with what you're saying.

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