Asperger's and Violence: Experts Weigh In
Dec. 19, 2012 -- Reports that Newtown shooter Adam Lanza had Asperger’s syndrome, a highly functioning form of autism, have led some to wonder whether that diagnosis could have played a role in the mass shooting, which killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school last week.
As with many cases such as this, the answer is complex. While experts are clear that Asperger's doesn’t make a person more likely to commit a violent crime, some say it may affect the way a crime is carried out.
Advocates for people with autism are more direct.
“Autism did not cause this crime,” says Peter Bell, MBA, executive vice president for programs and services at the nonprofit group Autism Speaks.
Bell, who also has a son with autism, says it’s important to understand that the condition is a developmental disorder that arises early in life. Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders struggle to communicate with others. They may feel socially isolated and have trouble feeling like part of a group. They may also have repetitive or restrictive behaviors, like rocking or shaking their hands.
“There’s absolutely nothing in that definition that talks about violence or committing aggressive acts,” Bell says.
Asperger’s and Violence
Indeed, psychologists and psychiatrists agree that people with autism or Asperger’s are not more likely to commit violent crimes than members of the general population, but they say in very rare cases, it can happen.
In those isolated instances, forensic psychiatrists tell WebMD, a diagnosis of Asperger’s or autism may help explain some aspects of seemingly unfathomable acts.
“I think it does matter. I think that’s probably part of making sense of this horrible thing that happened. I think that’s part of the equation,” says Marc Hillbrand, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
Hillbrand has studied the psychology of mass shootings, but he had no direct knowledge of Adam Lanza’s medical history.
“What’s so unusual about this individual, if indeed he has Asperger’s, is the use of weapons. There are a few cases of people with high-functioning autism who have committed violent crimes using weapons, but it’s a very small number of people,” he says.
Marianne Kristiansson, PhD, professor of forensic psychiatry at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, has published one of the few studies looking at the characteristics of a small number of violent offenders who also had autism.
She said when she heard about the Connecticut shooting, her first thought was that the shooter might have had Asperger’s.
“That was just my diagnosis,” Kristiansson says. “This offender behavior that he has presented is quite typical of a subject with ... autistic traits.”