Is autism associated with violent criminal activity?

29 Jun

Short answer: no. Just in case you don’t want to read through my introduction or skip down to the abstract below.

Whenever there is a major news story involving, say, mass murder, it is just a matter of time before speculation arises that the perpetrator was autistic. It happened last year with the Sandy Hook elementary shooting. It happened with the Virginia Tech shooting. It happened after Columbine.

We on the IACC felt it important enough to issue a statement following Sandy Hook. At the end of that statement one can find three studies indicating no association between autism (or autism spectrum disorders) and violent/criminal behavior. And now we can add another study, this one from Sweden:

Childhood Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Violent Criminality: A Sibling Control Study.

Here is the abstract:

The longitudinal relationship between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and violent criminality has been extensively documented, while long-term effects of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), tic disorders (TDs), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) on criminality have been scarcely studied. Using population-based registers of all child and adolescent mental health services in Stockholm, we identified 3,391 children, born 1984-1994, with neurodevelopmental disorders, and compared their risk for subsequent violent criminality with matched controls. Individuals with ADHD or TDs were at elevated risk of committing violent crimes, no such association could be seen for ASDs or OCD. ADHD and TDs are risk factors for subsequent violent criminality, while ASDs and OCD are not associated with violent criminality.

The next time such a news story comes out (and, sadly, we can expect that there will be more such events) there will almost certainly be speculation again as to whether the perpetrator is autistic and whether autism was involved in the events. With luck, some journalists will search for evidence on whether violent/criminal behavior before they file their stories.


By Matt Carey

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17 Responses to “Is autism associated with violent criminal activity?”

  1. Lindsay June 29, 2013 at 21:51 #

    Why do people think that, anyway?

    I know this wasn’t always an autism stereotype — I’m old enough to remember people being surprised that I could talk, because they hadn’t known that some autistic people could. The bad autism stereotypes I knew about were things like the Eternal Child or the Empty Fortress — dehumanizing, but not carrying any implication that we were a threat.

    When did there start to be an “autistic people are violent” stereotype, anyway? It really seems to have come out of nowhere to me.

    • Thomas June 30, 2013 at 23:12 #

      It became harder to sell the quack cures, so more scary lies had to be invented. The alternative (fewer sales for unnecessary and dangerous treatments) was just too horrible to face. Of course, it is true that autism is associated with violence – violence against the autistic…

    • Saraquill July 1, 2013 at 14:07 #

      Maybe it has to do with the stereotype that people like us are incapable of empathy, or we get loud and scary (totally ignoring that such outbursts are due to sensory overload or communication related frustration.)

  2. farmwifetwo June 30, 2013 at 14:37 #

    Where?? When children sit in classrooms with other children who a destroying them. That’s where it starts. Before you tell me that doesn’t happen, it does regularly. My SIL had one in her room a few years ago and the child had to be put into self-contained. How about the parents that are constantly in the news begging for services to deal with these very same violent children? How many parents have put their children into care when they were children or teens because they could not cope any longer??

    Then shall I list the parents that have been online for years who are attacked, have their things destroyed, regularly by their autistic children??

    Those parents that have been killed by them?

    It’s amazing how the moment someone with the same dx does something, the autistic community either attacks the families or finds another dx to go after or claims that person was not autistic. Yes, those with ADHD land in jails more often than “normal” people. BUT, that doesn’t mean that those with autism aren’t violent nor cannot plan large scale violence. Also, it doesn’t mean that every person with ADHD will be violent, just the same as that not every ASD person is. But, it is known to be fact that those with brain damage tend to have a poorer ability to cope and deal with stress and their tendency to lash out may come from that simple fact with both dx’s.

    Why autistic behaviour is not as common in jails?? It may mean is simply that it’s under-reported and the children are protected within the home setting as long as possible or instead they get psych help easier, behaviour services easier, coping methods are taught faster… than those with other dx’s.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) July 1, 2013 at 03:06 #

      So, first let’s address the “straw man” arguments above. When one shows that autism is not associated with criminal/violent behavior, one is not claiming that there is never any aggression, violence or criminal behavior. I see that you try (without success) to play both sides of that argument. Both claiming that there is more violence and claiming that “not everyone with ASD” is violent while at the same time disagreeing with not one, but four studies. All with anecdotes.

      Second, your choice of the word “attacked” is poor, especially in this discussion. Disagreement is not an attack. Are you attacking the authors of this study in your disagreement?

      Third, defining autism as “brain damage” does no service to either the autism community nor the communities dealing with brain damage.

      The autism parent community is very much guilty of throwing our own children under the bus with the assertions that autism and autistics should be feared as violent, aggressive and more. Yes, there are challenges, some of them great, for autistics and their parents.

    • chavisory July 1, 2013 at 12:30 #

      “BUT, that doesn’t mean that those with autism aren’t violent nor cannot plan large scale violence.”

      No, it doesn’t. It means that statistically speaking, autistic people are *no more* likely to engage in planned criminal violence than any other people. Of course autistic people have committed violent crimes. But not at a rate higher than neurologically typical people.

      And criminally violent behavior is different from the kinds of aggression that autistic people do often display due to frustration at not being able to communicate or physical pain. I don’t think there’s all that much denial that the latter does indeed happen. But lashing out in frustration is not the same thing as planning violent crime of the kind seen in school shootings.

      And “poorer ability to cope and deal with stress” does not necessarily equal violent or aggressive behavior. So many manifestations of stress behavior could fall under that heading that I don’t even know where to start.

      • David N. Brown July 2, 2013 at 06:53 #

        I’m going to speak out as “devil’s advocate” on this, particularly the point of PLANNED violence. If you compare those with autism to people with OTHER mental disorders, there are obvious reasons why the former would pose a greater potential threat: People with autism commonly have at least normal intelligence and reasoning, and a strong ability to focus on a task. If this combination of abilities is applied to the purposes of intentional destructive behavior, nobody should be surprised if the result is disproportionate damage. The reasonable response from everyone else is to consider how better to recognize “unstable” behavior, and especially to redirect these abilities to lawful purposes.

      • chavisory July 2, 2013 at 16:00 #

        Do you really need to play devil’s advocate with our well-being and safety, though, dude? It’s callous speculation like this that adds to the threats and marginalization that we receive as a minority community on a daily basis. Thanks anyway. /sarcasm.

        Regardless of what autistic people’s speculative *ability* to plan violent crime may be, the findings are that we DO NOT do so at a higher rate than other people.

      • David N. Brown July 2, 2013 at 16:57 #

        @chavisory,
        I do not intend to be “callous” or speculative. A major line of my thinking on these issues has been research into the possibilities of overlap between autism and schizophrenia or schizophrenia-like symptoms (part of my own history), which I strongly suspect is a factor in cases of offenders who are clearly mentally ill but still well-organized in their behavior.

      • chavisory July 2, 2013 at 23:34 #

        Yeah, well the issue isn’t whether autistic people *can* plan or organize well enough to commit violent crime. The issue is whether we DO SO at higher rates than the general population, and the answer is NO.

      • David N. Brown July 3, 2013 at 01:06 #

        @chavisory,
        I agree that there is no evidence that would even suggest the possibility that someone with autism is more likely to commit a premeditated violent crime. But, in my view, that’s not the ONLY question. The other question is whether people with autism who DO commit crimes are capable of doing more damage. If the standard of comparison is other categories of mental disorders, I believe a strong case can be made that the answer is yes.

    • Autistic July 2, 2013 at 18:52 #

      Accusing autistics of being violent and abusing other autistics for standing up for themselves isn’t going to help you portray yourself as the victim.

      Your clear equivocation of autistics not being linked to violence with autistics never committing violence is an insult to all autistics everywhere. You should be ashamed for attempting to guilt trip autistic people and their friends for destroying dangerous stereotypes from hysterical mothers brandishing crazed and often twisted readings of past events.

      I have no idea what you’re talking about with violent children in the news. Unless you get all your news from Age of Autism, which then, big surprise. Conspiracy theorists lie.

      There, ironically, is plenty of news of parents who murder their autistic children that claim the child is violent. No mistaking that the mother was probably projecting their own emotions. There are plenty of stories of anti-vaccination mothers breaking furniture and blaming it on children so they can push their violent, anti-scientific agenda.

      But you would never let any casual viewers know that curists ever lie to force dangerous therapies or treatments on their children.

      • David N. Brown July 2, 2013 at 19:35 #

        I am not clear to whom your comment is addressed. On the question of parental behavior, an important consideration is that there is ample evidence that parents of children with autism are likely to have autism or certain “autistic tendencies” themselves, which could account for many observable problems. The particular problem of parents murdering children with autism, however, might be something of a “red herring”: Law enforcement data on child kidnappings and/or homicides has long established that the vast majority of such crimes are perpetrated by a parent. So, this COULD just be a matter of autistic children and their families following the same patterns as the general population.

      • Chris July 3, 2013 at 06:04 #

        Unfortunately there has been a long standing prejudice about children with special needs that they are more prone to violence, which is untrue.

        I encountered this prejudice when my son was in elementary school. He attended a school where the “regular” neighborhood attended, along with two special ed. populations. One of them was the deaf and hard of hearing population, the other were kids with severe speech disorders. Essentially those young children who could hear, but could not talk, many were autistic. Their program was a direct offshoot of the deaf/hard of hearing program. They would get kids who could not talk, but could hear.

        Unfortunately many of the parents of the “regular ed” kids thought it meant they were violent. They tried to get it moved to out of “their school.” One parent at a local playground bragged about her efforts to get “rid of those kids.” I loved the look of shock on her face when I told her my son was one of “those kids”… and then she looked even more shocked when she asked me who he was I told her he was the little boy playing quietly with her son a few feet away.

        More than once I had to tell parents of “regular” kids that speech disabled term used by the district did not automatically mean violent. The special ed. kids were no more or less violent than the “regular ed”, nor the deaf/hard of hearing kids. They were just kids.

        What was really horrible was when I wrote my senators asking for more support for special ed. services. One was a former teacher and supported my views. The other claimed that special ed. students were the reason violence was increasing in schools, right at the time when our school superintendent said school violence was a historic low. Yeah, I never voted for that guy again, because he lied. Especially since I sent hime a copy of my son’s “Acts of random kindness” award.

        * I put the quotes on “regular” for a reason. More than one parent who questioned special ed. turned out to need services for a younger child. As they got older some of those kids needed other services, and unfortunately one friend of my daughter died before graduating high school. Never ever let a label define who you are.

      • David N. Brown July 3, 2013 at 07:45 #

        @Chris,
        I would venture to guess that a big part of the problem is that the general public readily treats those learning disabilities and mental illness as somehow unified, when by any reasonable appraisal they are if anything often even more different from each other than from a “normal” individual. This is clearly especially true in terms of the capacity for “violent” behavior, which is why I don’t care for people trotting out statistics about crime rates among “the” mentally ill. It should be self-evident that the potential for destructive behavior (and kinds thereof) among people with different disorders is about as different as for a tiger lily and a tiger. These differences also represent one of the more fundamental problems with the system of the “special ed room”, as it potentially consolidates the students most sensitive to stress with the most disruptive students.

  3. David N. Brown July 2, 2013 at 08:56 #

    One more thought on this: The reported connection between ADHD and “violent criminality” could be accounted for simply by a lack of impulse control, which would be unsurprising for the condition. It would follow that the connection would not necessarily carry for crime of the premeditated variety. Much the same can, in fact, be said of the supposed association of autism and “aggression”: Someone with autism in a “meltdown” could easily become dangerous, but would probably NOT be capable of complex and calculated mayhem. As indicated above, I believe that people with autism have a fairly unique capacity for premeditated crime, but I find it striking that nothing could be further from this than the frenzied or random outbursts that are usual trotted out as examples of “violent” behavior from people with autism.

    • Autistic July 2, 2013 at 18:54 #

      Peddling suppositions of autistic violence with your meltdown mythology assists nobody. Stop hurting autistics.

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