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Pathways To Crime. Asperger Syndrome and Crime.

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Dr. Coplan emphasizes the importance of being able to identify those individuals with High Functioning Autism or Asperger Syndrome who are at increased risk for committing violent crime, in order to reduce the potential for a catastrophic outcome.

The consensus among the world’s leading researchers is that “a small yet significant number of primarily higher functioning people with ASD will engage in unlawful behavior,” due to the combined effect of “generic forensic risk factors” plus “factors more specific to the autism phenotype.” (Woodbury-Smith 2014)

How often this happens is unknown, although it is probably uncommon. There has been no “explosion” in violent crime over the past 20 years in parallel with the hundred-fold increase in diagnosed cases of ASD. This is very reassuring, but the challenge remains to identify those few individuals with ASD / AS who are at greatest risk, in order to reduce the potential for catastrophic outcome.

As we described in an earlier post ( ), some risk factors are extrinsic. These include the “generic forensic risk factors” alluded to by Woodbury-Smith: Parental divorce, neglect, or abuse are all associated with increased risk of criminal behavior in children with ASD. In neurotypical populations, parental drug abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness are also associated with increased risk of criminality in the offspring. This has yet to be demonstrated for children with ASD, but it seems likely that they are equally vulnerable to these factors.

What about risk factors specific to the autism phenotype?

In his analysis of six adult male offenders with Asperger Syndrome (recurrent arson: 1, attempted murder: 1, sexual assault: 4), Murrie noted the following themes:

• “Deficient Empathy: Each of the four men charged with a sex offense, as well as the man who attempted murder, seemed genuinely unaware of the harm they caused their victims. Likewise, the arsonist appeared untroubled that he destroyed property belonging to strangers, rather than to those against whom he sought revenge

• Interpersonal Naiveté: A naïve and often impoverished understanding of human relationships… leaves AS patients vulnerable to mistreatment by others (and) may lead them to seek interpersonal contact in misguided ways.

• Sexual Frustration: social impairments combined with a desire for attachment or sexual experience could lead to illegal behavior…The use of pornography was one socially tolerated ways by which several of the men in our sample pursued an impersonal sexual outlet….”

In contrast to criminals with neurotypical development, Murrie was also struck by the fact that offenders with AS all confessed immediately to their crimes: “This could reflect a variety of traits ranging from deficient shame, poor judgment, lack of experience, or an impaired appreciation of the social and legal consequences of a confession, to simple forthrightness, rule-abiding behavior or honesty.” (I see the same thing in my young patients with ASD: They rarely fib, and many of them have a hard time even understanding the concept. Fibbing, verbal humor, and make-believe are all “theory of mind” skills, which my young patients lack.)

Lorna Wing – one of the most prolific researchers in the field, and one of its founders — summarized her impressions of the traits and motivations of offenders with AS this way (I have re-ordered her bullets):

* Assumption that own needs supersede all other considerations
* Lack of awareness of wrongdoing
* Intellectual interest
* Pursuit of “special” interests
* Hostility towards family
* Hyperarousal
* Vulnerability
* Cry for help
* Revenge

Formulations by other researchers (reviewed in Woodbury-Smith) are similar.
Exactly how might these intrinsic traits contribute to crime? More next time.

Murrie DC, Warren JI, and Kristiansson M. Asperger’s syndrome in forensic settings. Int J Forensic Ment Health 1:59–70, 2002
Woodbury-Smith, M. Unlawful behavior in adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders. In Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Springer, 2014, pp 260-281.
Wing, L. (1997). Asperger’s syndrome: Management requires diagnosis. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 8(2), 253-257

Dr. Coplan
James Coplan, MD, Is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speaker in the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders.


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