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Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D. Headshot

Asperger's Is Accused but Still Not Guilty

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This article was written jointly by Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D. and Areva Martin, Esq.

Recently, six people were tragically murdered in Isla Vista, a small community near Santa Barbara, California. The pain and suffering inflicted on these victims' families is unfathomable. As a society, we will continue to struggle to understand why something so cruel could happen to innocent people. The media will interview a host of experts to try and help us wrap our heads around the root cause of something so tragic. Most times, we'll never know the answer, but nonetheless, the media will play its typical blame game, oftentimes misrepresenting the situation by speculating medicine conditions that may or may not be connected to those involved.

In this case, the media placed the misguided microscope on Asperger's disorder. Following reports that the perpetrator, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, had a mental illness, several media outlet began shining the spotlight on the condition also commonly referred to as high-function autism.

Asperger's disorder, which subsequently has been eliminated from the DSM-5 manual, a diagnostic handbook for mental health disorders, is frequently discussed despite subsequent video clips and writings that show Rodgers to be a deeply-troubled young man who had thoughts and ideas that go far beyond Asperger's disorder.

Additionally, in the wake of the Isla Vista tragedy, many people have made reference to the mass murder at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, where 26 people were killed, including 20 school children. That perpetrator was also described as having Asperger's disorder. These two incidents, among others, have led to increasing media focus on people with Asperger's and their alleged propensity for violence.

It is understandable that in events such as Sandy Hook and Isla Vista, people desperately look for explanations. Naturally, in the aftermath of such unfathomable events, we look for someone or something to blame. We try to uncover supposedly reassuring reasons why this wouldn't happen in our own neighborhood, town or schools. To lay persons, Asperger's disorder may seem to fit the bill, but to those of us who work with individuals with Asperger's, we know that it's hardly the answer to the complex disorders that played a part in the Sandy Hook and Isla Vista mass murders.

As the media coverage continues to prompt further speculation about the link between Asperger's and criminal violence, the scientific evidence has consistently failed to show such a link [1, 2]. In fact, being violent, aggressive, or engaging in criminal acts have never been parts of the diagnostic group of symptoms for either Asperger's disorder or autism.

Notwithstanding the evidence, one frequently-cited paper has suggested that individuals with Asperger's disorder are not only over-represented in forensic criminal settings, but may have a greater risk of engaging in criminal behavior [3]. This conclusion, however, strains credulity, as the authors themselves recognize that there is a dearth of research on this topic, and many people with Asperger's continue to be misdiagnosed in the forensic settings. The authors also highlight that the overwhelming majority of people with Asperger's disorder are male, the gender with the greatest association with violence. Most importantly, the paper outlines reports from other researchers suggesting that Asperger's is actually linked to lower rates of aggression [4], and aggression in Asperger's can often be attributed to the presence of other psychiatric conditions [5].

Another recent study also entertained the possibility of a link between autism and mass murder [6]. However, the study's authors concluded that their findings were "clearly limited" and had relied upon "anecdotal and speculative" sources.

Given the paucity of scientific evidence linking Asperger's to violence, it behooves all of us, particularly researchers and the media, to get the facts straight before rushing to identify a definitive reason for horrendous acts of violence. When we fail to do so in the Isla Vista and Sandy Hook cases, we miss the mark and erroneously attribute blame to the autism community. Such judgment only serves to further stigmatize the more than 1.5 million individuals living with autism in the U.S., the vast majority of whom are law-abiding individuals who struggle to navigate complex medical and educational systems to obtain accurate assessments and interventions, face discrimination in housing and employment and suffer high rates of unemployment.

African-Americans and Latinos experience even greater hurdles and are frequently diagnosed two to four years later than their non-minority peers. Further, when we declare Asperger's "guilty," with inaccurate media reports linking autism and violence, we perpetuate the stereotypes that individuals with autism are incapable of being mainstreamed and fully integrated into their communities, at best, and at worst, we label autistic individuals as social deviants. Quite simply: Who wants to play, work or live with, or around, a potential "mass murderer"?

The horrors of Isla Vista are incomprehensible, but the murders give us yet another opportunity to have a candid discussion and take action on a range of issues including the stigma associated with mental illness, the lack of adequate inpatient and outpatient mental health facilities, national involuntary commitment laws, the efficacy of background checks for gun purchases, and the training needs of police officers responding to emergency psychiatric calls. What the horrific losses don't provide is a link between Asperger's and violence. Any suggestion to the contrary is not only wrong but is a distraction that we or the families of the victims can hardly afford or deserve.

References

[1] Dein, K., & Woodbury-Smith, M. (2010). Asperger syndrome and criminal behaviour. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 16(1), 37-43.

[2] Bjorkly S: Risk and dynamics of violence in Asperger's syndrome: a systematic review of the literature. Aggress Violent Behav 14:306-12, 2009

[3] Haskins BG, Silva JA. Asperser's disorder and criminal behavior: forensic-psychiatric considerations. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2006;34(3):374-84.

[4] Ghazziudin M, Tsai I, Ghazziudin N:Violence in Asperger's Syndrome: a critique. J Aut Devel Disord 21:349-54, 1991

[5] Palermo MT: Pervasive developmental disorders, psychiatric comorbidities, and the law. Int J Offend Ther Comp Criminol 48:40-8, 2004

[6] Allely, C. S., Minnis, H., Thompson, L., Wilson, P., & Gillberg, C. (2014). Neurodevelopmental and psychosocial risk factors in serial killers and mass murderers. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19(3), 288-301.

Arshya Vahabzadeh M.D. is an APA/SAMHSA Minority Fellow and a Clinical Fellow in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Areva Martin, Esq. is an award-winning Harvard-trained attorney, author and legal analyst. The founder and president of Special Needs Network Inc., Martin is a nationally recognized autism and children's rights advocate.

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