Saturday, September 7, 2013

Are People with Asperger's Prone to Violence?


I was just reading an article published on-line in the Florida Times-Union entitled, “Accused Best Buy attacker diagnosed with autism”, written by Derek Gilliam. Here’s the lead-in: 

"The man police say coerced a 9-year old girl into a Best Buy bathroom and then attacked her was diagnosed with "Asperger syndrom autism" when he was 10 years of by a Miami doctor, according to Duval County Clerk of Court records, obtained Tuesday by Times-Union news partner First Coast News."

Now I don't know about you, but I get the impression Mr. Gilliam is implying that James Tadros' autism was to blame for a horrifying attack on a young girl, otherwise why even mention it.
Child rapist James Tadros was diagnosed with Asperger's.

Why not mention other medical conditions when describing the accused? Have you ever read a piece describing an armed robber as diagnosed with heart disease?...or a murderer described as being diabetic? Would you wonder how it was in any way relevant to the crime, because that’s what has me scratching my head.

The fact that this child rapist may have also had autism is simply not germane to this offense.  Having autism does not make you immune to having other conditions—physical, medical or psychiatric.

My first thought was of Mr. Gilliam’s head on a stake for a misleading headline that implies criminal behavior and autism go hand-in-hand—our kids have enough to deal with without a journalist perpetuating the notion they are violent criminals. Then I decided to make a search of the technical literature to see what existed in peer-reviewed publications.

Frankly, not a lot—I could not find anything that suggested that an autism diagnosis in and of itself does not equate to violent or criminal behavior. However, I did find papers in psychiatric journals that have studied the issue and have tried to link Asperger’s syndrome with violent behavior.

In an analysis piece in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law with the ominous title, “Asperger’s Disorder and Murder”, Donna Schwartz-Watts, MD seems to believe there is a relationship between being an Aspie and being homicidal.  She presents three cases she was able to glean from the literature of individuals with the diagnosis who had also committed murder.

I’m no medical doctor, but Dr. Schwartz-Watts seems uninformed for a psychiatrist, saying Asperger’s is “quite rare” so there is a “paucity of medical experts”.  I agree with the lack of true medical experts about Asperger’s.  It is shocking how little the medical establishment knows about autism in general. But “quite rare”? And this from a psychiatrist? I want to point out that psychiatrists are medical doctors, whereas psychologists are not—only because our society confers a special status upon medical doctors as those who shall be obeyed and never questioned.
I am God, so sayeth the doctor...from

What I gleaned from reading her synopsis of these three cases is the individuals in question had likely had tough lives--one was a crack user, one was suicidal and had been kicked out by his parents and was unbeknownst to them living in a gardening shed behind their house, and the other "was often taunted by others and had very few friends".  That the first thing a medical doctor tried to do is somehow correlate the Asperger's diagnosis with the violent behavior is puzzling given the extenuating circumstances.

The lawyers involved were trying to get their clients a fair shake in the criminal justice system, and therefore felt the diagnosis was relevant to swaying judges and juries. I get that, but a psychiatrist being so ignorant is baffling. This article was written in 2005, so I can only hope Dr. Schwartz-Watts has taken the time educate herself about autism.
The following year (2006) in the same journal, an article entitled “Asperger’s Disorder and Criminal Behavior” was written by two psychiatrists. It was a look at several case stories of violent crimes committed by persons who were diagnosed with Asperger’s. They say “…a series of reports published during the last two decades suggests these disorders are at times associated with criminal activities (emphasis mine)."

They go on to say because persons with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders “…have difficulties appreciating the subjective experiences of other persons, there may be a lack of intersubjective resonance, or empathy” which in turn may compromise feelings of remorse.

No remorse.  People with Asperger's sound more like sociopaths in this scholarly paper written by two psychiatrists.

One of the authors, Dr. Arturo Silva co-authored a paper published a paper in 2004 that attempts to link serial killing with autism spectrum disorders. From the abstract: “Our analysis of this literature suggests the presence of an association between autism spectrum psychopathology and serial homicidal behavior."

From his paper entitled, “A Neuropsychiatric Developmental Model of Serial Homicidal Behavior”: “…during the last decade, autism spectrum disorders have begun to emerge as a potential neuropsychiatric paradigm to explain the origins of some forms of violent behavior including sexual violence.  Aggressive behaviors among children and adolescents with higher functioning autism are not rare…” (Silva, Leong & Ferrari, 2004; p 788).
There's aggressive behavior and then there's violent behavior...not one and the same.
The authors go on to clarify “…because we conceptualize autism as a neuropsychiatric probe of potential value in the investigation of sexual serial killing behavior we term the proposed approach as neuropsychiatric rather than psychiatric in its perspective."

Neuropsychiatric…I’m guessing this means people with Asperger’s are neurologically wired to commit sexual violence.

It’s no freakin’ wonder Tom Cruise tangled with Matt Lauer over psychiatry all those years ago. These people, all medical professionals--psychiatrists, believe people with Asperger’s are neurologically programmed for murder, rape and other violent crimes.

These articles are a little dated, but I did find one published last year in the American Criminal Law Review, “Maleficent or Mindblind” written by a lawyer that has a section header titled, “Asperger’s Features That May Increase Vulnerability to Commit Criminal Activity”.  You may be interested to know that according to the author these are: 1) Mindblindness (empathy and ability to understand another person’s point of view); 2) Abnormal, obsessive special interests; 3) Autistic malice; 4) Deceitfulness and difficulty admitting mistakes; and 5) Weak central coherence.
The autistic are malicious...who knew?

I fail to see how an “obsessive” interest in say, train schedules or comics predisposes someone to commit a crime--unless perhaps stealing a comic book is categorized as criminal behavior, and I don't know that people with Asperger's are any more likely than the next person to shoplift.  Autistic malice particularly interested me, having never heard this term before, so I read what the author had to say about it… “Disturbingly, some with Asperger’s create malicious ‘psychological experiments’ intended to elicit fear in others, through which they obtain some perverse enjoyment.” Um, OK…sure.

In fairness to the author, she was drawing from work by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he is related to the guy who played “Borat”) who is known for his work in Theory of Mind (mindblindness) and considered by the establishment to be an expert in the field of autism. The focus of this piece was on white collar crime, and overall I found it to be more charitable to people with Asperger’s than the articles written by psychiatrists.

So getting back to where this blog started with Mr. Gilliam’s piece on the child rapist with an Asperger’s diagnosis—how can we ever expect the general public and your run-of-the-mill reporter to understand people with autism are not predisposed to be violent criminals when we have so-called medical experts attempting to correlate criminality with Asperger’s in peer-reviewed journals? It reminds me of the Betelheim Refrigerator Mother Theory—an absurd premise that unloving mothers caused their children’s autism—that was perpetuated for years in the medical establishment.
Pre-wired for violence? Sociopaths, perhaps...autistics, no.

We have psychiatrists—medical doctors—describing people with Asperger’s in terms normally reserved for sociopaths…writing about criminals who just happen to have autism as if their brains are wired for violence. Self-proclaimed experts positing theories that suggest people with autism are incapable of compassion or concern for the feelings of others.
Wow--just wow.


Haskins, B. G. & Silva, J. A. (2006).  Asperger’s Disorder and Criminal Behavior: Forensic-Psychiatric Considerations. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 34:374-84, 2006

Kibbie, K. S. (2012). Maleficent or Mindblind: Questioning the Role of Asperger’s in Quant Hedge Fund Malfeasance and Modeling Disasters. American Criminal Law Review 49:367, 2012.

Schwartz-Watts, D. (2005). Asperger’s and Murder. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 33:390 – 3, 2005.

Silva, J. A., Leong, J. B. & Ferrari, M. M. (2004).  A Neuropsychiatric Development Model of Serial Homicidal Behavior. Behav. Sci. Law 22: 787 – 799 (2004)


  1. This one article sickens me. I will say something equaly dusturbing. When i went to ucla peers last year i found an article in a crime related publication that had a man named jared abrams who was in my ucla peers social skills class. He had been arrested by fbi earlier in the year for hacking into ms usa computer and obscene photos. It scared me so much i call publisher or paper and fbi scared to go to peers class. The psychologist organizers of class had no idea of this mans history untill i found out. Jared abrams had souposed aspergers syndrome also. I think aspergers is overdiagnosed

  2. I think it is over-diagnosed, as well. People apply the label very liberally and not necessarily accurately. Thanks for reading!