I often get asked during my autism trainings for first responders whether or not it is more likely to see someone with autism using drugs and alcohol, specifically when I describe sensory issues and what it’s like to experience them. This often leads to a discussion on autism and violence.
Are autistic people more prone to violence?
When you look at two highly publicized incidents – the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting and the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre – there is a perception by the public that persons with autism are predisposed to violent behavior. Yet, neither the DSM5 definition of autism nor follow-up studies have ever illustrated an increased prevalence of violent crime among persons with ASD.
So how do you explain violence and offending behavior? Let’s look at separating actual violent crime from aggressive behavior. In autistic individuals, a desire to communicate and/or the inability to recognize personal space might lead to inappropriate touching or pushing. This is never intentional or malevolent behavior, whereas violent crime is typically deliberate, serious, and planned. It involves force or threat of force.
So when looking at a behavior, here are some ways to distinguish a violent criminal behavior from an aggressive autistic behavior.
Autistic Behavior 1: Making no attempt to conceal or justify the behavior.
When someone believes they’ve done nothing wrong, or doesn’t understand why something is not appropriate, they will not try to hide their behavior. In my experience, most people I have worked with on the autism spectrum are 100% honest and incapable of hiding any type of behavior or reason behind it (this makes it very easy to figure out “whodunit” in my household when something is broken or missing!).
Autistic Behavior 2: The behavior is related to the person’s obsession or special interest.
Rigid, restricted and repetitive interests begin in early childhood but do change over time. They also correlate with intelligence level: the higher the level of intelligence, the more sophisticated the level of fixation. These obsessions can “graduate” from Pokémon characters to computers, technology, and scientific experiments, including arson!
Autistic Behavior 3: The behavior is from misreading social cues.
According to an example on CurrentPsychiatry.com, a young man with ASD had been fired a few days after landing his first job selling used cars because he was “sexually harassing” his colleagues. When questioned, he said that he was only trying to be “friendly” and “practicing his social skills.”
Autistic Behavior 4: The offending behavior is a result of a comorbid diagnosis.
Autism can present with several comorbid conditions, such as schizophrenia, ADHD, depression, psychosis or seizure disorder. It is critical to look for an underlying cause. In higher-functioning persons with ASD, violent crime is almost always precipitated by a comorbid psychiatric disorder.
Most people with ASD are neither violent nor criminal. There is a need to educate the criminal justice system regarding the special challenges faced by persons with autism. A defendant with autism has no physical signs of disability and is often misunderstood and mistreated.
What to do when encountering violent behavior and autism is suspected
- Confirm the ASD diagnosis based on developmental history and any training you have received
- Screen for comorbid psychiatric and medical disorders, including depression, psychosis, and seizure disorder
- Carefully examine the circumstances surrounding the offending behavior
During interviews, remember to allow for more time. When you think you’ve done that sufficiently, double it Also try to understand the person’s communication style before asking the critical questions, and remember that lack of eye contact, vague answers and changing the subject can be typical autism behaviors and not evidence of guilt.