Health and Science News for Parents
May
27

The non-links involving mental illness, autism and violence

written by Tara Haelle

In a bit of a departure from this blog’s usual fare, I feel an obligation to share something I posted to my Facebook feed, along with a list of highly recommended links. A version of this post is also published on the blog of Parents Against Gun Violence, a group I co-founded with six other parents after the Newtown shooting, and on my more personal hodgepodge blog Tara Incognita.

Learn. Repeat. Share.

1) Asperger syndrome is not a mental illness. It is a developmental disorder.

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.

Added, per edits suggested by Liz Ditz: Persons with developmental disabilities are more likely to be the victim of a crime than those without developmental disabilities. They are also statistically less likely to be a perpetrator than others are. And drawing spurious armchair-diagnosing conclusions about a person’s developmental status and his or her violent acts also harms those with developmental disabilities.

“All features that characterize Asperger’s syndrome can be found in varying degrees in normal population.” – Lorna Wing, 1981, a quote provided by Steve Silberman

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In addition to worrying about our children’s health and making the right decisions with regards to ear infections and vaccines and sleep and the such, we parents obviously have a pretty hefty responsibility in teaching our children how to think about the world and other people in it. That includes helping them understand, interact with and think about people who are different from them, including differences in physical health, mental health and developmental disabilities, such as having autism.

When tragedies occur, we must also 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 these two things, 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 those disabilities and such violent acts when no evidence exists for such a link.

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 then clarified in an LA Times story: “Astaire said Elliot had not been diagnosed with Asperger’s 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.”

1010592_495724187166238_435361941_nNote 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.

As I wrote above and on my Facebook timeline, Asperger syndrome and/or autism spectrum disorders are NOT mental illnesses. They are also NOT linked to violence. Mental illness 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. Hence my involvement with Parents Against Gun Violence.

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 this, 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 discussed the inappropriateness of linking the Santa Barbara shooting with 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 about many of the misunderstandings about Asperger’s.

 

Facts

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: “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 the 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.

4 Responses to “The non-links involving mental illness, autism and violence”

  1. Thank you. I’m actually shedding tears of relief. My son is on the autism spectrum and I could not believe it when a good blog friend the other day posted about the recent shooting, saying that giving a person with Aspergers a gun is like giving a drunk a car. I know he meant well, but all I could think about was how sad it is that the world is so misinformed due to mainstream media. My son is almost five and won’t even let me kill a spider because “maybe it’s just a baby.”
    I’ve got a question for you. I run a weekly blog series called Our Land. It’s designed to raise empathy and wonder for everybody. Would you consider writing something like this for it?

    • Tara Haelle

      Kristi, I’m glad this post helped you, and I hope you shared it with that friend. I would be happy to write something for Our Land. I’m not familiar with the blog, so I’d like to see what the style is. I will also say that I’m not the expert in this area. Emily Willingham, who has written extensively on this issue and has a son on the spectrum, is an expert, and she and I are co-authoring a book, so I lean heavily on her work. (She has another excellent piece today called “Elliot Rodger didn’t have autism. He had anger.” You can read it here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2014/05/30/elliot-rodger-didnt-have-autism-he-had-anger/)

  2. Oh. I should have mentioned. Jessica Smock sent me. I thanked her. A lot.

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