When tragedies occur, one of our responsibilities as parents is to help children process the event and provide them with the appropriate lenses through which to see the incident (if not understand it, since such things are rarely truly “understood”). It is absolutely essential that in doing this, we do not allow our children to absorb inaccurate and damaging ideas, propagated by an irresponsible media machine and blogosphere as well as countless Internet comments, about links between violence and mental illness and/or developmental disabilities when no evidence exists for such a link.
Hence the following important points:
1) Asperger syndrome is not a mental illness. It is a developmental disability.
2) Asperger syndrome is not associated with violence. At all. In any way. In fact, someone with Asperger syndrome is far *less* likely to commit a violent crime than someone without it.
3) A person who commits mass murder is not automatically/by default mentally ill (much as some might wish it so).
4) The mentally ill are many times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime than the non mentally ill, and they are statistically less likely to be a perpetrator.
5) Drawing spurious armchair-diagnosing conclusions about a person’s mental health and his or her violent acts, without evidence, harms the mentally ill.
6) Persons with developmental disabilities are more likely to be the VICTIM of a crime than a perpetrator. And drawing spurious armchair-diagnosing conclusions about a person’s developmental status and his or her violent acts harms those with developmental disabilities.
Following the Newtown shootings, and now following this most recent shooting in Santa Barbara, the news has been contaminated with bogus connections between the shootings and the mental and/or developmental status of the shooter. The former can certainly be relevant when kept in context and when confirmed (rather than springing from online amateur armchair-diagnosing). The latter – developmental status – is irrelevant.
There were reports that Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, had Asperger syndrome, which actually no longer “officially” exists in the new DSM-5 but is nevertheless considered on the spectrum of autism disorders. That diagnosis has since been legitimately questioned, but even if true, it is not relevant to his committing a crime. Now, the Santa Barbara shooter has been supposedly labeled with Asperger syndrome by his family’s attorney, who then retracted the statement and clarified in an LA Times story: “Astaire [the lawyer] said Elliot had not been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome but the family suspected he was on the spectrum, and had been in therapy for years. He said he knew of no other mental illnesses, but Elliot truly had no friends, as he said in his videos and writings.”
Note that the writer here erroneously wrote “no other mental illnesses,” as though Asperger syndrome were a mental illness. It’s not. Further, any news articles which speculate on Elliot Rodger’s mental health history would be violating the new guidelines issued by the Associated Press following the Newtown shooting. Such speculation, as that link explains, is further stigmatizing and damaging to those with mental illness, who commit only about 4% of all violent crimes. That speculation is also damaging and stigmatizing to those with developmental disabilities, such as autism, when the developmental disorder is inappropriately linked to violent crimes.
Asperger syndrome and/or autism spectrum disorders are NOT mental illnesses. They are also NOT linked to violence. Mental illness itself is NOT linked to violent crime in and of itself. That does not mean we should ignore the mental health status of mass shooters, nor does it mean we do not need better mental health services in this country (we do), but we should also pay attention to the only common denominator that IS evident in these incidents – that they are carried out with the same instruments. For example, the presence of a gun in the home greatly increases the risk of a violent death in that home.
Folks with much more knowledge and information that I have on this topic have already written about it at length, so I’ve provided below some essential reading when it comes to the intersection (or lack thereof) of mental illness, autism and violence. Emily Willingham, in particular, has written some of the best pieces on this, including the following quote from this piece, just days before the Santa Barbara shooting:
“Evidence-based studies examining established commonalities among people who commit crimes like this can be enlightening, but wild speculation and retrospective diagnosing do nothing useful and can cause considerable harm to law-abiding people who carry any of these labels, whether autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or others that have been suggested. Autistic people are people, and like other people, some tiny percentage of them can engage in violent behaviors, although overall, they “almost never” target anyone outside their families, plan the violence, or use weapons. There is no single or even group of diagnoses that explains or predicts the horrific behavior of mass murderers. And some unsupported assumptions about autism–such as the continued canard that autistic people lack empathy (they do not) – help no one and certainly don’t guide us to way to prevent such tragedies.”
A similar piece about the same irresponsible study was written by an autistic disability rights activist.
The same activist also discusses the inappropriateness of linking the Santa Barbara shooting to Asperger syndrome or autism.
Dr. Willingham discusses the inaccurate beliefs that autistics do not have empathy and that they are dangerous.
An excellent piece from a father also discusses many of the misunderstandings about Asperger syndrome.
The disabled, including autistics, are more likely to be the victim of sexual assault than the non-disabled.
This study shows that those with autism spectrum disorders and/or obsessive compulsive disorder are less likely to commit a violent crime than typically developing individuals.
A statement from the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee at the US Department of Health and Human Services states: “There is no scientific evidence linking ASD with homicides or other violent crimes. In fact, studies of court records suggest that people with autism are less likely to engage in criminal behavior of any kind compared with the general population, and people with Asperger syndrome, specifically, are not convicted of crimes at higher rates than the general population (Ghaziuddin et al., 1991, Mouridsen et al., 2008, Mouridsen, 2012).”
This excellent fact sheet provides evidence for the following statements:
- The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
- The public is misinformed about the link between mental illness and violence.
- Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination
- The link between mental illness and violence is promoted by the entertainment and news media.
Other facts available at the Twitter hashtag #autismfacts.
A version of this post, written by a PAGV steering committee member, also appears at Red Wine & Apple Sauce.