Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Blame Where It Doesn't Belong

Once again, the so-called Asperger Defense has reared its ugly head in a school stabbing incident that involved a teen with an AS diagnosis. I've already made it clear what I think of turning bigoted stereotypes into legal defenses, in a post I wrote last year, so I won't repeat myself on that issue. I would, however, like to thank the Asperger's Association of New England for issuing this statement:

"Physical violence is not at all typical of people with Asperger Syndrome (AS). AANE has worked with thousands of families, teachers, and other professionals for more than a decade. In that time, we have never before heard of a comparable event. We hope the public will remain open minded and open hearted, and not compound this tragedy by forming a sweeping negative stereotype about all people with AS."

It is absolutely true that physical violence is not typical of AS (or any other autism spectrum condition). The diagnostic criteria for AS describe differences in social interaction, as well as repetitive behavior. Other autism spectrum conditions also are characterized by speech differences and delays. There is no mention of violence or aggression anywhere in the DSM-IV criteria for any form of autism. To put it another way: Whether or not a person has displayed violent behavior is completely irrelevant, from the standpoint of a clinical psychologist, to the determination of whether that person should be diagnosed as autistic.

Moreover, there is (to the best of my knowledge) no statistical evidence indicating that autistics commit any more violent assaults than the general population. The image of the autistic berserker who might explode into homicidal rage at any moment is a vile and groundless stereotype that has been spread intentionally by greedy fraudsters such as Mark Geier and David Geier, by dishonest journalists such as David Kirby, by melodramatic TV hacks such as Dr. Phil, and by a few criminal defense lawyers scrounging for any excuse to get a client off.

So I was dismayed when I read a post on Susan Senator's blog that contains the following response to AANE's statement:

"I think it is a little disingenuous of the AANE to claim that physical violence is not at all typical of Asperger Syndrome. I know at least two children whose behavior can cast doubt on that statement. But more to the point, what is really not helpful about this is that the AANE seems to be in effect seeking to separate themselves from those other disabled people who do have profiles of physical violence (like some people with more marked forms of autism, perhaps)."

As long as we're throwing around anecdotes in place of science, I know at least two Aspie teenagers who are the most responsible, even-tempered, and nonviolent kids you'll ever see, and they deserve much better than the ugly prejudices and discriminatory treatment that they are going to have to face as a result of misinformation of this sort.

What's more, I don't see any intent on the part of AANE to separate themselves from "people with more marked forms of autism," as suggested by Ms. Senator, and it is completely untrue that such people "have profiles of physical violence." As I discussed above, there is no mention of physical violence in the diagnostic criteria for any form of autism, however "marked" it may be. Of course, that doesn't mean an autistic person can't be violent—we are human, after all, and violence is an unfortunate characteristic of the human species in general—but there is no basis whatsoever for a broad assertion that those with more pronounced autistic traits "have profiles of physical violence." To the contrary, autistics in all diagnostic categories are much more likely to be victims of violent assaults than to commit such assaults.

I believe there has been a lot of public confusion caused by the widespread use of imprecise language such as "meltdown" to describe both tantrums and sensory overload experiences of autistic people. Sensory overstimulation is fairly common among autistics, but tantrums involving physical violence toward others are much rarer.

A tendency toward sensory overload should not be carelessly equated to a propensity for physical violence, especially in the context of a homicidal assault.



  • Thank you for writing this. I hadn't read Susan Senators blog entry. Her response is strange to me. Some of the violent behavior of autistics is what anyone would do if they had speech problems and people kept pushing, pushing, pushing them into situations that are painful or beyond exhausting. "Violent" means someone gets hurt, "aggressive" means deliberately trying to manipulate someone with an action. Autistics are not aggressive, they may be violent, but allowing them space and time to calm their nerves and not putting them in stressful situations may solve that. I've seen my ASD kid get into a near panic from situations that were totally normal by most people's standards. I learned not to put my kid in those situations. I lost some freedom to take my kid certain places, but I wasn't going to torment my child so I could do what I wanted to do, either.

    The levels of constant physical and mental torment that exist in schools is something that needs to be addressed, this young man was bullied, possibly not by the young man he killed, I don't know how accurate the details in the news are.

    It's a horrible thing that a young man was killed. I feel bad for the parents of both young men.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:21 PM  

  • Thanks for steering me here!

    Well I guess I would say that I am one of those "anecdotes" whose Aspie son experiences unpredictable incidents of agression against others. He has always had an anger problem, and I don't assume that his anger is a symptom of AS. Everyone involved in his care understands that as hard as he tries (and he does), these things are fearfully unpredictable. And now that he is a bigger boy (5'10"), his aggression now becomes a serious risk to his own safety and the safety of others.

    I am perplexed by the reaction of AANE that seems to be more concerned about defending the reputation of AS or those with it than to promote understanding about that which is not known or understood about how AS interplays with a host of other disorders and that many with AS also exhibit pieces of them.

    I don't think "blame" is what is happening here. People are seeking to understand how something like this could happen. AS is the beginning of a perfectly valid explanation. The beginning, not the end.

    I thought the follow-up story on the parents was magnificent and went a logn way to demonstrate to thoswe without knowedge what a parent in this position goes through.

    As one who may find himself in the same position sometime soon, I certainly feel less alone.

    By Blogger Wave Maker, at 3:01 PM  

  • So I was dismayed when I read a post on Susan Senator's blog that contains the following response to AANE's statement:


    Might want to do a google.com news search to see just how much distancing the AANE people have been up to these days. Here's an example of open mouth insert foot by AANE...

    John Odgren attends Lincoln-Sudbury School because Wachusett Regional High School in Holden, the school district serving Princeton, does not have a program that meets his educational needs. Asperger syndrome is a brain disorder sometimes described as autism without mental retardation, according to the Asperger’s Association of New England.

    Here's the link full story...


    I think AANE is doing a darn fine job of "distancing"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:36 PM  

  • Oh I can be aggressive just don't get on the wrong side of me.

    Don't make me angry, you would not like me when I'm angry.

    By Blogger Larry Arnold PhD FRSA, at 5:14 PM  

  • I just don't get why we're described as aggressive when the people who are aggressive to us are described as simply normal. If this really were about accuracy, we wouldn't be scrambling to call autistic people aggressive while totally ignoring non-autistic aggression. So, this is not about accuracy, this is about bias.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 6:13 PM  

  • I read an article about "hyper-aggressive" silver foxes that are being bred in a lab in Russia. "The foxes scream, snap, and lunge when humans approach their cages."

    Of course the fear is that these aggressive animals might get loose and attack humans and other animals. The article said that they wouldn't survive very long in the wild. "The term hyper-aggressive is misapplied. These animals are hyper-defensive. The risk-averse foxes wouldn't attack --they'd probably hide until they starved."

    I guess "aggression" depends on the circumstances.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:58 PM  

  • There are dogs, I hear, that will let you hurt them in the process of caring for them. That's great, makes for a longer life for the dog, maybe, and it's much less drama when it comes to trimming their toe-nails and checking their ears and teeth.

    My dog thinks that anyone who tries to clip her toenails is actually trying to kill her, pretty much the same for things like letting a vet look at any part of her anatomy too closely. She's a little terror when it comes time to take her to the vet, we need a muzzle and multiple helpers and towels over her, etc.

    But, to me, what she's doing, while horrifically stressful for all of us, makes more sense than the dogs who trust people to do whatever. My dog is NOT a fear biter, when she's afraid of people she gets away from them. She doesn't bite people at all even if she's afraid of them and just met them... she'll bite if there's a chance they are going to hurt her. I think she learned that people can hurt her when I took her to get spayed, she bit a vet tech (she was a puppy, not a huge deal) when the vet tech reached in to check on her in her cage. Well, who wouldn't bite in that situation? She'd just been cut open and sewn up and probably was in a lot of pain. Maybe that's off topic.

    I don't know what happened with the Aspie kid and the knife. I know that there are ASD people who lash out, not usually with knives. I have heard of millions of NTs who kill, sometimes with knives. I don't suppose that means that killing people with knives is part of "NT" syndrome, or part and parcel of being a male, even.

    Should we talk about the young NT men who almost killed an autistic man by putting a horrible mechanical thing up his rectum (in a public bathroom) this past year? I still think of it sometimes, makes me ill. Were the abusers high or low functioning NTs I wonder? Why do I think that they didn't feel threatened by anyone at the time?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:55 AM  

  • Here's the link to the Silver Fox story that anon. mentioned

    By Blogger jypsy, at 12:21 PM  

  • Boy! you ARE a bigot!! People with autism are given to violent reactions, and behaviours when confronted with situations they do not understand or when there is too much sensory overload ( remember ballast talking about how he just could not stand people chewing- how it irks him no end etc) So someone who has these tendencies, but does not have the encouraging family or friends to keep him calm or redirect his irritabilities, could react unpredictabily - or in this case predictabily - by hitting out.

    So do not hold the DSM and tell me that since it is not written the violence part must be part of their neurotypical side! Ha Ha, that was funny.

    Open your mind.

    Lesser Bigot

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:38 AM  

  • While we're talking about NT violence, what about that gang of NT teenagers who tricked the autistic kid into going with them, nearly killed him, and taped it? (Kristina blogged it on autismvox, I don't remember the date, I never remember dates)

    The ones who would be being tried for murder if the victim was NT? Who tricked the autistic young man into saying he did things he didn't do? And the 'leader' of the NT group was in trouble for stuff like this before, yet we haven't heard about this before...

    And don't even get me started on Parental Martyr Syndrome, one of the symptoms of which is abuse & sometimes murder...

    Or NT Syndrome, Bully Subtype, the most common variety among young people afflicted with neurotypicality...



    By Blogger Neurodivergent K, at 2:31 PM  

  • Kassiane,

    For what it's worth (as a psychologist) - I concur with your diagnosis of Lesser Bigot.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E., at 2:44 PM  

  • I went through a lot of this when I was about the same age, and in some respects, I STILL go through it, such as one of my last jobs where I had to deal with two workplace bullies. But, I never punched anybody (although I came close). Punched plenty of walls to vent my frustrations, though.

    The worst part is that even when they are attempting to address the problem of bullying in schools, it has not gotten better, and in some respects, the problem has gotten worse. The bullies have gotten smarter and the victims can't fight back.

    Certain behavioural tendencies such as violence and aggression transcends all boundaries, whether it be physical, psychological, racial, or gender. Everybody is capable of doing horrible things.

    By Blogger Vince, at 2:23 PM  

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