Violence is Not a Trait of Autism, Aspergers Syndrome

Dec 17 2012 - 9:54am
autism spectrum disorders, Asperger's Syndrome

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome have been in the news recently due to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut in which the gunman was said to have been on the spectrum. Mental health conditions, particularly in which someone would feel compelled to take human life, are often misunderstood, but autism experts and parents are very quick to point out that violence is not trait that is common to those with an autism spectrum disorder.

"There really is no evidence that links autism or Asperger's to violence," said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at the nonprofit advocacy group Autism Speaks and a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

'People with psychiatric disorders are more likely to hurt themselves,' adds Harold Kopelwicz, a renowned New York child psychiatrist. 'Having Asperger’s disorder by itself doesn’t put one at higher risk for killing someone or killing themselves.”

Asperger’s Disorder was first described in the 1940’s by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger who observed autistic-like behaviors and difficulty with social and communications skills in boys who had normal intelligence and language development. Asperger’s is sometimes considered a “mild form” of autism because those with the condition are typically higher functioning, even brilliant.

Children with autism are frequently seen as aloof and uninterested in others. Those with Asperger’s, however, do usually want to fit in and have interaction, but are socially awkward and not understanding of conventional social rules. They may have limited eye contact, seem to be unengaged in a conversation, and may not understand the use of gestures.

The Autism Society notes that some patients with Asperger’s may show a lack of empathy toward others. However, this is not the same lack of empathy that characterizes severe mental illness such as antisocial personality disorder. Asperger’s patients simply struggle to understand the rules of the world, says Kelly Babcock on But “few, if any, would get up in the morning and wonder if a mass killing would be okay.”

"Research suggests that aggression among people with autism spectrum conditions can occur 20 to 30% more often than compared to the general population," says Eric Butter, an assistant professor of pediatrics and psychology at Ohio State University. "Aggression that we see in autism can best be described as disruptive and irritable behavior and is often consistent with the communication and social difficulties that are the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders. It is a very human experience that when you cannot explain how you are feeling, that you will then act out in frustration, anger, and aggression. But, it is not consistent with the diagnosis that you would plan and execute a crime like we saw here."

Added Dawson: "Whenever there is a horrible tragedy like this one, people want to make sense out of it and they're trying to look for answers. I think it's important that we be very clear that if this individual did have Asperger's or autism - which we don't know [for sure] that he did - this is not going to help us understand what happened. Because there really is no link between the two."



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