Autism Doesn’t Cause Murder

December 19, 2012

Autism Doesn’t Cause Murder
I am on the autism spectrum, having ADHD, and I can’t imagine how you would even point a gun at a 6-year-old, let alone pull the trigger. (Autism, Asperger’s and ADHD are all mental health disorders on the Autism spectrum.)

Priscilla Gilman, a mother with an autistic child, writes in The New York Times in the wake of Adam Lanza’s Sandy Hook school slaughter:

Let me clear up a few misconceptions. For one thing, Asperger’s and autism are not forms of mental illness; they are neurodevelopmental disorders or disabilities. Autism is a lifelong condition that manifests before the age of 3; most mental illnesses do not appear until the teen or young adult years. Medications rarely work to curb the symptoms of autism, but they can be indispensable in treating mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Underlying much of this misreporting is the pernicious and outdated stereotype that people with autism lack empathy. Children with autism may have trouble understanding the motivations and nonverbal cues of others, be socially naïve and have difficulty expressing their emotions in words, but they are typically more truthful and less manipulative than neurotypical children and are often people of great integrity. They can also have a strong desire to connect with others and they can be intensely empathetic — they just attempt those connections and express that empathy in unconventional ways. My child with autism, in fact, is the most empathetic and honorable of my three wonderful children.

Additionally, a psychopathic, sociopathic or homicidal tendency must be separated out from both autism and from mental illness more generally. While autistic children can sometimes be aggressive, this is usually because of their frustration at being unable to express themselves verbally, or their extreme sensory sensitivities. Moreover, the form their aggression takes is typically harmful only to themselves. In the very rare cases where their aggression is externally directed, it does not take the form of systematic, meticulously planned, intentional acts of violence against a community.

And if study after study has definitively established that a person with autism is no more likely to be violent or engage in criminal behavior than a neurotypical person, it is just as clear that autistic people are far more likely to be the victims of bullying and emotional and physical abuse by parents and caregivers than other children. So there is a sad irony in making autism the agent or the cause rather than regarding it as the target of violence.

In the wake of coverage like this, I worry, in line with concerns raised by the author Susan Cain in her groundbreaking book on introverts, “Quiet”: will shy, socially inhibited students be looked at with increasing suspicion as potentially dangerous? Will a quiet, reserved, thoughtful child be pegged as having antisocial personality disorder? Will children with autism or mental illness be shunned even more than they already are?

This country needs to develop a better understanding of the complexities of various conditions and respect for the profound individuality of its children. We need to emphasize that being introverted doesn’t mean one has a developmental disorder, that a developmental disorder is not the same thing as a mental illness, and that most mental illnesses do not increase a person’s tendency toward outward-directed violence.

Dr. Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor who writes on psychology (better and in a less doctrinaire way than so many in psychology), has talked to me about how psychological and psychiatric diagnoses that are made are often way too clear-cut. A psychologist or psychiatrist will deem a person to have a particular disorder when they actually seem to have a spectrum of disorders.

I think it’s important to remember how inexact psychological and psychiatric diagnoses actually are. They’re basically somebody’s opinion, based on a list of symptoms in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical manual), which is often as relevant as my diagnoses that I have incurable cancer at 3 a.m. (I try to avoid doing that now!)

The thing is, symptoms that check off in one disorder may also check off in another. But, a psychologist or psychiatrist may have a pet disorder they like to diagnose, and may be prone to find that particular disorder.

I was shocked at how inexact diagnosis for ADHD was. There was no brain scan (none exists to determine it that I know of); a doctor just listened to what I said and prescribed me with Ritalin, which, by the way, didn’t quite work for me. Years later, when I got a psychiatrist I felt was solid on science — my current psychiatrist — and who I didn’t feel had a prejudice against ADHD (like the last one, who doesn’t believe it’s real, the ass), I trusted him and told him it wasn’t really working. He put me on Adderall and changed my writing life from torture to sometimes hard work I love.

UPDATE: Related piece by Rishawn Biddle at DropoutNation.

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