ASPERGER SYNDROME AND CRIME
These review notes explore the question whether individuals diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome have a greater probability than typically-developing peers of becoming involved in delinquent or criminal activity.
The alternative perspective under consideration is that the characteristic traits and behaviours associated with Asperger Syndrome (such as poorly developed theory of mind, or obsessionality, etc) may lead to a greater vulnerability to accusations of offending behaviour despite no criminal intent, especially when there appears to be little regard for the effect of certain behaviours upon other people.
M.J.Connor January 2008
Involvement in, or Suspicion of, Offending
The review of available findings and observations by Allen et al (2007) set out to highlight evidence by which to support or refute the suggested association between Asperger Syndrome (AS) and offending against the law that has become a subject for much debate.
Reference is made, for example, to the work of Haskins and Silva (2006) whose initial research data indicated that people with AS are over-represented among the population of known offenders relative to their prevalence in the general population.
On the other hand, Howlin (2004) has argued that any association that is perceived between AS and crime is the result of a small number of cases which have given rise to much publicity and to (speculative) causal attributions in the media.
Allen et al recognise how this kind of link may come to be perceived in that, in his original description, Asperger (1944) noted that some children carried out what could be defined as malicious acts either of an aggressive or sexual nature without any apparent regard for the impact upon other people.
However, the question is raised about the actual intent or motive behind these and other offensive actions; and Howlin argues that significant underlying factors include a reaction to a lack of social understanding of situations (or of being misunderstood by other people), the pursuit of some obsessional interest, and a failure to anticipate consequences.
There is also the possibility that the individual concerned would not have the capacity to avoid pressures from peers to engage in malicious or delinquent activity.
This view concerning problems in verbal and non-verbal communication, social understanding, and flexibility of thought or action has become commonly expressed; and reference is made to a number of factors which could explain why someone with AS may have an increased risk for offending behaviour ... viz ...
It has been suggested (by Debbaudt 2002 among others) that certain types of illegal acts may have diagnostic significance and lead to the identification of previously unrecognised AS. These include an (obsessive) harassment of other people, hitting out for no observable reason, computer crime, and offences arising from misjudged personal relationships.
Allen et al have also been able to identify a number of forensic case studies which have provided illustrations of how the particular characteristics of AS may predispose the individuals to offending.
Their summary indicates that there are three key types of offence that are consistently reported ... sexual offences, violent offences, and arson. Frequently, there was a ready admission of the actions, with the reasonable implication that the offences themselves and the reactions afterwards reflect central features of AS, namely preoccupations, self-centred “logic”, interpersonal naiveté, and low empathy.
However, the authors identify a problem applicable to a case study approach in that, when assessing the circumstances of some offence committed by a person identified with AS, it is virtually inevitable that there will be a focus upon aspects of this condition that can be linked to the offending behaviour. There is a lack of evidence concerning variables that differentiate among individuals with AS who have been involved in offending and those who have not.
Just because someone with AS offends does not mean that this condition is a inevitable and universal risk factor for offending ... (and one is reminded of the consistent finding that a number of risk factors, eg living in a high delinquency area, poor achievement at school, etc, may differentiate between groups of young people whose probability of offending are respectively high and low, but such variables may be much less accurate in predicting the behaviour of a given individual).
In respect of experimental studies, reference is made to the work of Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004) who demonstrated that the capacity for empathy is indeed lower among individuals with AS than in the general population.
However, while this limited empathy might be thought to be a risk factor for offending, it was further shown that the characteristic problems of interpreting the behaviour and feelings of other people are not associated with any wish to cause harm to those other people.
When it was pointed out that their behaviour could be hurtful, this sample of individuals with AS offered expressions of regret, but they could not see that their own actions were responsible for causing the hurt.
In other words, there is support for the hypothesis that limited or absent theory of mind, (an inability to read the signals and reactions of other people), coupled with unusual and repetitive interests, is significant for offending behaviour among individuals with AS.
As far as actual prevalence of offending behaviour is concerned, inconsistent findings emerge from existing studies.
Tantam (2003) found that acts of violence towards others, such as lashing out, were common in an AS population; and there is a consensus among various studies that sexual offences, aggression, and arson are particularly prevalent.
However, the problem with much of the evidence available for review by Allen et al is that it is based upon very selective samples of people with AS, typically those attending specialist hospitals.
It is consistently noted that there is an over-representation of such individuals among the population of known offenders in these hospitals, but the question is raised whether this kind of statistic which applies to individuals who have committed serious offences, can be generalised to the overall AS population. There is the further possibility that the significant association is between offending and some co-morbid condition rather than with the AS per se.
The National Autistic Society (2004) presented the view that only a minority of people with AS become offenders and that there is no association between autism and crime ... (although one might ponder whether autism and AS are comparable in this respect given that the individuals with AS are more likely to work in mainstream settings and to be exposed to the behaviours and relationship patterns of a range of peers while seeking acceptance and relationships of their own and pursuing their particular interests and goals).
The NAS further argues that the very rigidity of adherence to rules and routines would decrease the probability of law-breaking ... (although, again, one might ponder whether any literalness about rules, and a kind of tunnel-vision, may cause some interpersonal conflicts and increase the risk of misunderstanding, anxiety, and reactive aggression).
The present authors (Allen et al) highlight the continuing inconsistency of findings concerning whether offending is more or less prevalent in an AS population than in the general population, complicated by methodological differences between studies in terms, for example, of criteria for the diagnosis of AS among target samples and for defining the offending behaviours.
Prevalence of offending appears lower in an AS population than in the general population when a whole range of types of offence is considered; but higher in respect of aggressive behaviour such as criminal damage (perhaps attributable to reactions to perceived victimisation).
However, while offending may be a relatively low-frequency phenomenon among people with AS, it seems likely that those who do offend will experience marked difficulties with the subsequent judicial processes, starting with the arrest, any element of restraint, and with the questioning.
Problems are likely in their remembering the sequences and timing of events, or in over-compliance to suggested interpretations of events; and their apparent competence in (expressive) language may mask their particular vulnerabilities and anxieties.
The implications include ensuring that staff working in the criminal justice system are aware of the nature of Asperger Syndrome and ASD generally, and of the particular profile of strengths and weaknesses in given individuals; that language used in investigating events is kept simple and unambiguous; that approaches are not threatening; and that the individual is supported by a familiar person who has experience of working in the field of autism.
Allen et al conclude by making a plea for ongoing research to study truly representative samples of people with AS rather than those already involved with the judicial system in order to identify the similarities and differences between people with AS and controls in respect of the risk for offending; and to explore further the factors which differentiate offenders from non-offenders within the overall AS population.
It was noted by Allen et al (op.cit) that any association that may be perceived, rightly or wrongly, between AS and offending will have been influenced by the dramatic or even sensational way in which certain cases have been reported in the media.
A recent example concerned an 18 year old, diagnosed with AS and experiencing the characteristic social and communication weaknesses (and, reportedly, associated bullying), who, during a party which had been particularly daunting for him, responded to the teasing from a 10 year old girl by attacking her with fatal consequences.
The young man was convicted, and, when sentencing him to a long prison term, the judge referred to the AS condition and his uncertainty whether the disturbance of personality could be traced to the AS, but justified the sentence by describing the young man as presenting considerable danger to young girls.
A similar implication of some direct link between autism and violent crime was made in the trial of the man accused of the murder of a TV presenter in 1999, when specialist opinion highlighted a number of diagnosed conditions co-morbid in this man with no way of determining which condition or combination of conditions could be associated with the crime.
(The conviction has now been declared unsafe, and a re-trial is to be held.)
The general moral is that the action (or alleged action) of one given individual with his or her idiosyncratic profile of strengths and needs, and history of experiences, and which occurs in a particular setting and involves a particular set of circumstances, should not be regarded as typical of all the individuals who share a diagnostic label, especially one associated with a spectrum condition.
The further moral appears to involve an early recognition of the condition, and the precise nature of the behavioural profile and symptoms, with a view to increasing awareness of the needs and strengths on the part of extended family, peers, and relevant others, thus to minimise situations likely to evoke fight or flight reactions.
In a conference presentation,
Allen et al (2006) provided a summary of their general themes.
First, they set out the possible predisposing factors among individuals with AS that could increase the probability of offending ...
They go on to cite supportive evidence from other researchers to highlight this kind of commonality across cases, with deficient empathy typically seen as the most significant factor.
While noting the relatively few individuals with AS identified among those of their sample known to have committed offences, they listed the commonly-cited precipitating events, as described by their sample of adults with AS, for the aggressive or destructive or otherwise offending actions.
The percentage of respondents referring to particular circumstances were as follows :
The point emphasised by these authors was that, in their survey covering a very large number of people, the actual incidence of crime among individuals identified with AS was low. On the basis of this kind of empirical evidence, the team held that there is little support for any hypothesised association between AS and criminal activity.
This is not to belittle the impact of the offences that are committed, but the implication concerns how to interpret the actions. It is accepted that some of the behaviours associated with AS reflect a lack of communication, or misunderstandings, coupled with an inability to predict the outcomes; but whether the offending actions should be interpreted as having a knowing and criminal intent is questionable, with implications for determining how judicial and mental health systems should best respond in safeguarding the interests both of the individual and of the community.
In a commentary on the presentation, Dr Tony Attwood held that it is important that such findings are given publicity in order to counter any view among the general public that AS is a direct and common cause of anti-social or threatening behaviour.
Attwood shares the concern lest high profile cases where the central figure is identified with AS (or is believed, or claims, to be so-identified) will reinforce a false assumption that anyone validly diagnosed with AS may commit similar actions.
This concern is justified given the reports in the national press (eg Bright 2005) that children and adolescents with developmental or psychological difficulties, including AS, are being unreasonably targeted for anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs).
The examples, identified by the British Institute for Brain Injured Children, are given of a 15 year old boy with AS given an ASBO to counter his tendency to stare over the neighbours’ fence into their garden; and of another 15 year old boy identified with Tourette Syndrome given an ASBO seeking to stop his swearing in public !
In a further case, an ASBO was served upon a 13 year old girl with AS who had been swearing in the street (and where it turned out that there had been an angry altercation between her parents and the neighbours and she had been copying the language used).
The concept of “zero tolerance” has been identified by staff at the institute as problematic if it is taken literally and involves unreasonable demands upon some children and young people.
The NAS has taken a similar line in expressing concern that the definition of anti-social behaviour is too vague. In particular, it is held that “ behaviour which causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm, or distress ” could describe some of the core symptomatic behaviours of many individuals with autism.
One NAS initiative has involved a pilot programme in a number of UK schools to help young people with AS to become aware of the risk of crime and associated issues, given that their social and communicative vulnerability will increase the risk of their being placed in dangerous situations.
The programme is seeking to enhance social awareness in the target group and to enable them to remain safe from exploitation or from (unwitting) involvement in offending activities.
One common area of potential offending is with the use of computers.
AS is not a specific risk factor for hacking activities, but there has long been the concern (as expressed, among others, by Temple Grandin) that many individuals with ASD and AS are drawn to computer-based learning or recreation, and to jobs which utilise IT interests and skills, so that, without monitoring and mentoring, there is a risk of a drift into hacking activities.
It may well be, again, that there is no criminal intent but that the individuals who are identified as hacking into the systems of large organisations are motivated by the presenting challenge to their computing skills.
There are no hard data concerning the actual incidence of this computer crime among individuals with AS or ASD, but a small number of publicised cases may have allowed there to develop a belief (which may or may not be true) that such actions are more common among individuals with AS than among the general population.
Therefore, while seeking to avoid inappropriate stereotyping, one might still recognise (as noted by Baron-Cohen 2001 among others) the overlap of traits of individuals with AS and of individuals prone to computer hacking. However, Baron-Cohen stresses that any link can only be speculative in the absence of any actual research evidence.
Meanwhile, Szatmari is quoted in the same 2001 publication as dismissing any such link arguing, instead, that individuals with AS tend to stick to rules and routines almost to a fault.
However, it is possible that, in addition to the “abstract” intellectual challenge involved, there may be some instances where the hacking is motivated by a sense of injustice or by a claimed quest to identify poor security.
Whether this kind of action is more common among the AS population remains subject to debate ; and, presumably, there remains the possibility that it is more identified but not more prevalent among the AS group given their likely frankness or lack of concealment about what they are doing.
Finally, one can refer to the work of Bowen and Plimley (2007) who accept that individuals with ASD can be particularly vulnerable to becoming either victims or perpetrators of offending actions.
They, too, highlight the characteristic problems with social communication and interaction, inflexibility, etc, which can lead to a misunderstanding of their actions and reactions (including on the part of staff in the judicial system).
The implication is not that individuals with ASD are more likely to commit some offence, but that they need help to stay safe and to avoid actions which were not motivated by a criminal intent but which may be interpreted in that way.
These authors go on to cite the comments of teachers experienced in working with young people with ASD to the effect that behaviours accepted and tolerated in childhood, such as outbursts of temper, pushing into people, touching, expressing highly personal comments or questions, etc, are not tolerated and may be interpreted very negatively during adolescence and into adulthood.
It may also be the case that the young people can present as confrontational or provocative (which, presumably, may be the starting point for an escalation of behaviour into more overtly aggressive interchanges); and they may also be persuaded into delinquent acts, such as petty theft or damage to property, by peers.
Their interviews with those young people who had experience of involvement with the police revealed the probability of mutual misunderstandings as a result of some or any of the characteristic aloofness, or apparent rudeness and insensitivity, or literalness, etc.
Bowen and Plimley recommend providing individuals with ASD some kind of identity card describing the presence and nature of the condition and presenting symptoms.
This concept was described as being supported by their sample of young people (and their parents) who felt that behaviours could be open to misinterpretation as deliberately provocative or dangerous or offensive when the real issues concerned communication problems, a lack of recognition of consequences, and stress in the face of uncertain or challenging situations leading to apparently aggressive actions.
Social stories are also recommended as a means of teaching the individuals concerned about how to avoid those behaviours open to misinterpretation, such as being able to differentiate appropriate and inappropriate touching, social rules, road safety etc.
Further, the advice is for identifying “triggers”, ie those events or experiences giving rise to idiosyncratic but negative reactions which may be perceived as deliberately provocative or aggressive acts.
* * * * * *
As a conclusion, one might summarise much of the implication from the studies reviewed as a matter of seeking fully to understand what lies behind and motivates the observable behaviour. If triggers are operating, one needs to be clear what they are ... seeking to gain the perception and to tap the experience of the individuals concerned as opposed to maintaining one’s own untested hypotheses about the sequence of events.
This could be summarised as ensuring a functional assessment of behaviour ... the precise antecedents, the intended purpose, the payback, etc ... with a view either to averting those circumstances which evoke the inappropriate behaviours or to identifying acceptable means of achieving the desired outcome.
Once more, the need is for identification of the needs as early as practicable in order that the particular “style” of the individual can be observed and increasingly appreciated over time with the opportunity to introduce strategies to reduce maladaptive behaviours and reactions, and generally to increase appropriate day-to- day social functioning.
Further, despite the high incidence of diagnosed cases of AS and ASD, it appears that the nature of these conditions remains unclear or confused among significant numbers either of the public, typically-developing peers, or of professionals whose role may bring them into frequent contact with young people.
The need is for ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the nature of AS and ASD, and the range of permutations of symptoms that may be observed among the individuals so-identified, thus to increase an understanding of the needs and an avoidance of misinterpretations leading to inappropriate judicial disposals which may serve only to compound the needs.
M.J.Connor January 2008
Allen D., Peckett H., Evans C., Hider A., Rees H., Hawkins S., and Morgan H. 2007 Asperger Syndrome and the criminal justice system. Good Autism Practice 8(1) 35- 42
Allen D., Evans C., Hider A., and Peckett H. 2006 Asperger Syndrome and offending behaviour : exploring the links. Conference presentation - Autism Cymru, Cardiff. May 2006
Asperger H. 1944 Die Autistichen Psychpathen in Kindersalter. Archiv fur Psychiatrie und Nevrenkrankenheiten 117 76-136
Baron-Cohen S. 2001 Cited in Zuckerman M. Hacker reminds some of Asperger Syndrome. USA Today 29/3.01
Baron-Cohen S. and Wheelwright S. 2004 The empathy quotient. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 34(2) 163-175
Bowen M. and Plimley L. 2007 Keeping out of trouble. Special (July) 31-33
Bright M. 2005 Charity pleads for tolerance as autistic youngsters face ASBOs.
The Observer (Home Affairs) : May 22nd 2005
Debbaudt D. 2002 Autism, Advocates, and Law Enforcement Professionals. London : Kingsley
Haskins B. and Silva A. 2006 Asperger’s disorder and criminal behaviour. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 34(3) 374-384
Howlin P. 2004 Autism and Asperger Syndrome : Preparing for Adulthood. New York : Routledge
National Autistic Society 2004 Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Involvement in the Criminal Justice System. London : NAS
Satzmari P. 2001 (Also cited by Zuckerman M. op.cit)
Tantam D. 2003 The challenge of adolescents and adults with Asperger Syndrome. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 12 143-163
© Mike Connor 2007.
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