Sunday, October 10, 2010

Are autistic people natural born criminals?
Associations between autism and notorious violent crimes are easy to find--they seem almost automatic. Here is one example, and another, and one more. There seems to be an entire book on this theme, though I haven't read it.

In the scientific literature, you can find powerful deficit models of autism at work in predictions that autistics should disproportionately be violent and prone to criminal behavior. For decades now, examples and claims (just a few here, here, here, here) fitting this prediction have been highlighted, while the few dissenting views (e.g. here and here) have had little effect.

Then there's political expedience. Unless we receive the usual lobbied-for interventions, autistics will disproportionately display criminal behavior and wind up in jail--or so it is claimed. A few examples from the usual autism politics here, here, here.

Kathrin Hippler and her colleagues deserve high praise for noticing how well-placed they were to investigate these kinds of popular claims. Their recent paper takes advantage of their access to information about the large group of individuals--177 of them--who are former patients from Hans Asperger's clinical practice in Vienna.

Most (93%) of these former patients are male. All were assumed to score at least in the normal range of intelligence as children, but for most there are no recorded IQ scores. They were born between 1938 and 1979, and on average were diagnosed at age eight (range 3-21 years). In 2010 their average age would be about 50. It is unlikely that most of this cohort would have undergone the usual lobbied-for autism interventions as children.

Hippler et al. obtained information from the Austrian Penal Register about all criminal convictions registered, as of 2002, in this cohort. They found 33 convictions for a total of 8 individuals, resulting in 23 "custodial sentences" ranging from 2-30 months and 11 fines.

They also checked whether, compared to the general population, their cohort had a higher rate of newly-registered convictions for the years 1998-2002. Here is what they found:
the average proportion of convictions found in our sample (1.30%) is very comparable to that in the general male population (1.25%)
As to kinds of crimes:
By far the most common convictions in Asperger’s former patients were for property offences [...] Offences against life and physical integrity were rare.
And while data for the general population were limited:
qualitative assessment of offence types in Asperger’s former patients suggests that they do not differ radically from those in the general public
Because this point needs to be underlined, here is more from Hippler et al.'s discussion:
the findings from our study do not suggest an over-representation of certain offence types. In the case records spanning 22 years and 33 convictions, there were only three cases of bodily injury, one case of robbery and one case of violent and threatening behaviour.
Again to their great credit, Hippler et al. also provide data broken down according to Asperger's system of diagnosis. The 177 former patients were divided into an AP group ("autistic psychopathology," N = 73) and an AF group ("features of autistic psychopathology," N = 104).

Some guesswork is involved, but the AP group would fall under current criteria either for Asperger syndrome or the specific diagnosis of autism. Hippler et al. conservatively estimate one-third would be specific-autistic, but it's not difficult to find researchers who would guess a higher proportion (here, for example).

While a minority of the AF group might meet Asperger syndrome criteria, according to Hippler et al., others might be PDD-NOS, or in the (nonautistic) broader autistic phenotype. The AFs are described as "former patients at the less extreme end of the spectrum" and were included by Hippler et al. because:
Asperger believed that ‘autistic psychopathy’ was a heritable condition blending into "normality", which is reflected in the case descriptions of these children in the sense that the core features were the same but symptoms were less severe or could be compensated for better.
According to near-universal assumptions, it would be far better to be AF (less "severe" or "extreme") than AP. Transforming AP-types into AF-types is a major goal of the usual lobbied-for autism interventions. But Hippler et al. found that most of the registered criminal convictions in their cohort belonged not to the "more autistic" AP group but to the "less autistic or not autistic at all" AF group.

Indeed, of the 33 convictions found registered as of 2002, only three convictions of two individuals were found in the AP group. The remaining 30 belong to six individuals in the AF group, with two in this group contributing 22 convictions.

In the comparison with rates of newly-registered convictions in the general population, the AP rate was 0.6% while the AF rate was 1.7%. These figures are lower and higher, respectively, than for the general male population, while the AP rate is comparable to the general population, females included (0.7%).

Hippler et al. provide a competent overview of the relevant literature (including this recent finding), as well as a fair discussion of their study's limitations. Under the banner "Wider Implications," they write:
There is a public perception that individuals with mental health diagnoses in general, and Asperger’s syndrome in particular, present a threat to the general public. We contend that, based on the follow-up data from Asperger’s original cohort, as well as other studies, this perception is wrong.
Even wider implications include the neglected question of how being regarded as just naturally violent and dangerous to others, as natural born criminals, has affected the outcomes of autistics.


Hippler, K., Viding, E., Klicpera, C., & Happé, F. (2009). Brief Report: No Increase in Criminal Convictions in Hans Asperger’s Original Cohort Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40 (6), 774-780 DOI: 10.1007/s10803-009-0917-y

Postscript: This post has been included in the 43rd edition of Scientia Pro Publica.


That Guy said...

I wish I could find a copy of Asperger's original paper in English, but until then I'm still wary that his sample might turn out to be unrepresentative (as Kanner's was). In any case, based on these results the real rate cannot be massively larger than in the general population. I'm an agnostic when it comes to the autistic rate of crime but I still think it's likely that autistics are more prone to commit high profile, seemingly motiveless crimes such as school shootings. Also, the idiot who diagnosed Ted Kaczynski as being a paranoid schizophrenic should have been fired. If that guy isn't autistic no one is.

Jon Brock said...

Interesting post (and study). My instinct (completely unsupported by scientific data) is that these figures if anything may over-estimate criminality in people on the spectrum. Most autistic people I know would make lousy criminals and would be more likely to be caught and convicted of an offence they had committed (compared with a non-autistic person committing the same offence).

Michelle Dawson said...

Thanks Jon, and you may be onto something.

Hippler et al. comment on the 2 AF individuals who each racked up 11 convictions:

"It is of particular interest that among these offences many are displayed as 'attempted', reflecting the fact that these individuals were often caught in the act. This suggests that the two former patients with AF might not have been very sophisticated in their criminal conduct."

The author said...

If you go by rates of conviction you are more likely to be recording miscarriages of justice, there are reasons I can think of why autistic people are more likely to be convicted wrongly, and less likely to be able to mount a successful defence given what I know of police procedure.

Michelle Dawson said...

The Author's point might be worth investigating. Another wild guess is that autistics may also be at some greater risk of being falsely accused of crimes.

This happened to me almost immediately after I disclosed my diagnosis to my previous employer. Having an outstanding work record over a long career meant nothing, once my diagnosis was out.

I was very lucky to not be arrested or otherwise locked up, on the basis of false accusations. It took almost a decade to mitigate some of the harm.

Tabitha said...

I am saddened that Michael Fitzgerald has written the book you highlight. I come from a family of Aspergians and there is absolutely no way that any of us would commit a crime. We all adhere to strong, ethical/moral rules. We may find face-to-face interaction difficult and have empathy deficits in the sense of finding other people difficult to understand, but more limited empathy/ToM needn't equate to limited compassion.

In fact, I would prefer that the term empathy was NOT used when discussing autism and ToM deficits in autism - because many people use the term empathy interchangeably with compassion. A person can have poor ToM in response to real-time conversation, but still be compassionate and have a desire to treat other people kindly. That is, the compassion of a person with autism may be more abstract and less obvious.

Job Descriptions said...

People are made to become autistic. They are never born criminals. The parents, childhood and society are the causes of this behaviors. The parents are the first teachers. Parents should educated the child and they them self should behave with love ! This is my suggestion! thanks

Michelle Dawson said...

Coincidentally, the presumption that autistics are natural born criminals was promoted on LBRB, through grossly false reporting of a published (open access) paper.

I tweeted this here. I'm barred from commenting on LBRB. When dissent finally showed up, I commented here.

LBRB very wrongly assumed that institutionalized autistics, and other disabled people, must all be criminals, when there was no evidence for this even in the relevant study's abstract.

You can see these kinds of harmful assumptions at work here.

Anonymous said...

I would actually expect the criminal rate to be lower than for the general population, anecdotally. And of course, it makes a lot of sense for the less severe to have higher criminality rates - the more severe avoid other people more stringently.

What I would expect to see reflected in the criminal data would be crimes of modern society that involve very subtle rules: resisting arrest, loitering, creating a nuisance, failure to comply with an officer's commands, lewd behavior, etc. You know, the crimes of being weird: the sorts of things where a person deemed nonthreatening for some reason is just excused or ignored, but the person who is "off" is pressed and harassed.

Otherwise, I would expect that where autistics come into the criminal system is as victims, or because someone attacks them and can turn the "fault" on them because they lack verbal skills and social support.

I would also agree that autistics would be more likely to be falsely accused of crimes for a host of reasons.

Michelle Dawson said...

Related and recommended reading.

Anonymous said...

As someone on the spectrum and also on the committee of an organisation that supports autistic adults in the local community, the people I've come across who have ended up in the criminal justice system were often people who did not have appropriate support. (e.g. regular access to a Support Worker, Social Worker, etc.)

It is very difficult here to get support if you are autistic but do not have associated learning disabilities (which in the area where we live is classified by statutory services as an IQ above 70).

Many members of the organisation are struggling without adequate support and often find themselves getting into trouble because they don't recognise certain boundaries (and don't have adequate support in place to help them with this).

There is also the issue of "challenging behaviour" which anyone who doesn't understand autism immediately assumes is just plain callous violence rather than a response to great stress or an attempt to communicate when all else has failed.

And there is the issue of those who are tricked by unscrupulous NT "friends" into doing something illegal.

Obviously, this is 100% anecdotal and also I'm not saying that no autistic individual ever does anything they know is wrong, but it is a shame that there is probably not a realistically feasable way to find out how many autistic people who have committed crimes would not have done so if they'd had better support in place to facilitate their indepencence.

I also am concerned that it can become a self-fullfiling prophecy. Only a few months ago I was at a conference where a very well-respected researcher talked about how people on the spectrum were more likely to become psychopaths than the general population (!) - well I'd love to see how he can actually prove that!

But putting such a negative message out there, combined with all the existing propaganda about autism, means that many of us are considered to be 'trouble' and therefore not given a chance to become anything else.

Anonymous said...

i tried clicking your links to get more information and was served pop up after pop up for quizzes and green card lotteries and other crap that is obvious scams - those must stop

jamie said...

i also have autism and no matter what i do or try to tell people all things is twisted around and ignore what i tell people until they twist it enough and add things from assuming they can then accuse me of either committing a crime that never happened or thinking about committing a crime and this is even just going in to buy a candy bar - people in general is morons and they think we have the problems

Theresa Turner said...

I'm doing some research on ASD and criminality - there is some evidence that people with ASD are the opposites of psychopaths. Psychopaths are thought to have high levels of cognitive empathy and low levels of experiential empathy, so they understand how people feel and how to induce feelings but do not experience them vicariously. However, people with ASD are thought to have low levels of cognitive empathy, so they do not understand how people feel or how to induce particular feelings in others. It is thought that the high levels of experiential empathy in ASD coupled with the lack of understanding can be very distressing, confusing and may even lead to acting out those feelings which can result in others or property becoming damaged.

Theresa Turner said...

Hi Jamie
Would you be prepared to check out my research and consider being a participant?
The URL is:
I'm asking people with ASD to tell me about their experiences of having committed crimes and the effect it has had on their lives.
Thank you and best of luck in life (whether you participate or not!)

Michelle Dawson said...

Theresa Turner is promoting her own research and trying to recruit someone who commented here. At the very least she is implying that this person has been convicted of a crime.

That's totally unethical, in my view.

Also, Ms Turner makes claims about autism that are not well-supported by research. Then she uses these not-well-founded claims to suggest, without providing evidence, that as a result autistics just naturally would harm others or destroy property.

That's bad science and bad ethics both, in my view.

Theresa Turner said...

I understand your concern Michelle. I am indeed hoping to gain support for my research because the voice of people with ASD needs to be heard rather than us researchers making assumptions based upon little evidence. As for science, I am under the impression that this is about empiricism and objectivity. You seem to have a different understanding of science to scientists (I am a chemist from my younger years and re-trained as a psychologist).
I have not made any assumptions about Jamie. Simply invited him to look at my research website.
I work with people with ASD who have committed crimes (I am training to be a forensic Psychologist so that should come as no surprise!). Hence, I have an understanding of ASD from a forensic perspective as well as a clinical perspective. Also, if you had visited my website perhaps you would realise that I am a mother of an adult son with autism which motivates me to advocate for people with ASD and especially those who are in services and suffering because they are misunderstood and not receiving the appropriate help.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I offended you Jamie - I thought you were alluding to having being accused of something you didn't do. I wasn't assuming you a committed a crime.
Also, I apologise Michelle if I offended you in some way regarding my use of the blog.
As a psychologist (and a scientist) I collect evidence from other studies and use it to ask questions and make further inquiries into an area of interest but that requires collecting further evidence. I am not suggesting that the evidence for criminality in ASD is generalisable to the entire population of people with ASD. That is why I want to do more research in this area. But we do need more people with ASD to help us with our research so that we can represent you all within the scientific community in a way which you agree with.

Theresa Turner said...

Just one more thing! I would never suggest that people with autism would automatically be criminals - I believe quite the opposite. I'm not sure how I managed to communicate this but it was not my intention!

Raffee said...

I find your comments on here more of a relief as I am doing a paper on Asperers and Violence. It is crazy to me that the first asked thing after some major crime such as a mass shooting is " I wonder if they have autisim"? My son is 17 and was diagnosed 2 years ago with AS. He is the type of person that you would not know he had it unless you knew what you were looking for. I want to debunk the belief that people on the Autistic Spectrum are m ore likely to be criminals, because I do not belief that to be true. Maybe I do not want it to be true. A couple of concerns as I have read some journal articles is that psychologists are now going into the criminal system and looking for people to diagnose with the disorder. I feel that is wrong and it will skew any research done within the criminal community. Another thing way off topic is that I do not think it s right that people with Aspergers cannot serve their country. My son is made for the military and would benefit greatly from that life. I do not know what to do. I would almost go get a second opinion and have them take the AS diagnosis off his records. Any thoughts are welcome.

Anonymous said...

I’m a special educator and am currently taking a class on ASD and the criminal justice system. I want to preface my post by saying that commenting on a blog related to the involvement of people with ASD in the criminal justice system is an assignment for my class.

I want to point out that there are several studies recognizing the connection between having ASD, and being involved in the criminal justice system (convicted or accused of a crime), and the data from these studies is varied.

Some studies find a slight correlation, some find a significant correlation, and some find no correlation at all. It seems as though it is accepted that the percentage of people with ASD involved in the criminal justice system is slightly higher than the percentage of people without ASD, and studies support this assumption, but study validity has also come into question.

In “A Systematic Review of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System,” Claire King and Glynis H. Murphy review available literature on people with ASD and the criminal justice system. They found that poor quality research and varied methodologies only allow for tentative conclusions on the relationship between having ASD and involvement in the criminal justice system (King & Murphy, 2014).

It should also be emphasized that people with ASD are very different, and that the research on the connection between people with Autism, and involvement in the criminal justice system does not by any means suggest that simply because someone has Autism, he, or she is more likely to commit a crime. There are certain characteristics of Autism that may lead to an increase risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. However, these characteristics do not result in everyone with Autism committing crimes, that’s simply, and obviously not how it works.

Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts/ knowledge!


King, C., & Murphy, G. H. (2014). A Systematic Review of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System. J Autism Dev Disord Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(11), 2717-2733.

Stefanie said...

I am intrigued by all of your comments here and efforts to debunk the perceived connection between violence and Autism. My son is 14, diagnosed 2 years ago AS. I am also a student, an undergrad, and I desire to conduct graduate work in the field of autism research. Specifically re-framing the "empathy" assumptions. I would love any suggestions the professionals here could give me as to where I should be focusing as an undergraduate and moving forward in looking into graduate programs. I'm in the U.S so I do not expect those here would have specifics on programs, but I could use some general advice.

Theresa, I will be checking out your website. As a mother and a student I appreciate your efforts!

Best regards,