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Violence and Autism: The Correlation We Don't Talk About

Disability & Mental Health

Violence and Autism: The Correlation We Don't Talk About

Radix Admin

By Madeline Klein '18

***Trigger Warning: Gun violence, ableism, violence against disabled persons

Autism is correlated with violence. This is a proven fact. Autism brings with it violence; abuse, sexual assault, and even murder. We also see this correlation between violence and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and various personality disorders. We do not like to talk about this correlation – some people might consider it inappropriate or offensive – but it exists, and after the recent shooting in Oregon, we need to talk about it.

Autism is correlated with violence.

Specifically, autistic people have a statistically increased risk of suffering violent crime, such as abuse, sexual assault, and murder. This risk is similarly high for mentally ill people with conditions including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders, as well as people with physical and/or chronic disabilities.

So let us start this out by making one thing very clear: it has been statistically proven that you, the abled person, are not in danger at the hands of the disabled other. On the contrary, what the statistics show is that we, the disabled community, are actually in danger from you. It is the non-disabled, or abled, community that leaves us to die on the street, or locks us up in nursing homes, prisons, or mental institutions. It is primarily abled people, especially men, who sexually abuse us. Abled parents, teachers, caretakers, and “experts” subject us to dangerous and unproven therapies to make us more like the fantasy child that abled families expected, and wanted. And when an abled person murders the disabled person in their care, the rest of the abled community excuses it by emphasizing how burdensome and frightening we are. When fourteen-year-old Alex Spourdalakis was stabbed to death by his mother, anti-vaccination hacks blame his autism for the crime, and even more scientific sources mention that his symptoms had been “getting worse,” as if that explains or excuses his mother’s actions. When fourteen-year-old Issy Stapleton’s mother, Kelli, tried and failed to gas them both, Issy ended up in a three-day-long coma, and Kelli got two episodes on the Dr. Phil show.

Obviously, intersections of privilege and oppression exist within this issue. For instance, many Black people who are murdered by police have a mental illness diagnosis, or else a history of mental health care (for two such cases, Google “Anthony Hill” and “Maurice Donald Johnson”). A Black eleven-year-old autistic boy, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, was arrested and cuffed at his school, taken to jail, and then later charged with a felony, simply because he had not followed a classroom direction from the teacher. Black people on the autistic spectrum are more likely to be misdiagnosed as having behavioral disorders or psychotic mental illnesses, according to researchers like David S. Mandell, ScD, in his paper, “Race Differences in the Age of Diagnosis Among Medicaid-Eligible Children with Autism.” And of course, regardless of their race, autistic girls are routinely misdiagnosed, or never diagnosed at all, as many experts, for instance, Shana Nichols, PhD, in her book Girls Growing Up on the Autism Spectrum.

But if we are speaking in a general sense, you should not be afraid of us. We should be afraid of you.

Let us examine the dialogue around the recent shooting in Oregon. Obviously, much of the discourse will be about gun control, whether you agree that further limiting access to firearms, especially for people with histories of mental health treatment (people who are already at risk for violence), is going to prevent future shootings. But naturally, because our culture connects violence with mental illness, there will be discussion on the importance of creating and maintaining available mental health services. While this is not a bad discussion to have, the implicit blaming of the mentally ill community for the shooting is extremely damaging. To blame a community of individuals already at-risk for violence and stigma for these horrible acts can only cause more problems for autistic and mentally ill people. It seems noteworthy that mental health supports, and our society’s inadequacy at providing them, are generally only brought up after an abled white cis man goes out and shoots up something.

And since autism has become such a hot issue in our media, it is a good bet that someone will diagnose the shooter with autism.

That is what happened after the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, when MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough opined that the shooter was “somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale.” It seems worth mentioning that Scarborough himself has a son with an Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis.

That is also what happened after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, later that same year. Almost immediately, pundits began to speculate about the shooter’s mental health, and it eventually came to light that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age thirteen by a psychiatrist. Immediately, the media connected the dots they had wanted to connect, because it is easier to blame disability than it is to look at complex issues in our society like white male entitlement and gun culture.

After all, they thought, the epidemic of mass shootings in our country had to stem from some difference or aberration within the shooter's mind. It was inconceivable that frustrated white privilege, male privilege, and gun culture (not gun ownership itself, but the culture of hyper-masculine, frequently racist and xenophobic nationalism surrounding gun ownership) could combine to produce a misanthrope who felt that some groups – feminists and women in general, African-Americans, even people of faith in general – were to blame for all of their and society’s problems.

The shooter always needed to be someone different from the rest of society; someone tangibly and demonstrably not “one of us.” A regular person could never do what these men did, the media - and the rest of us -  thought. Such acts must have been committed by someone implicitly worse somehow, deficient somehow, not fully human somehow.

And of course, when one wants to see people as not fully human, in media and in real life, there’s almost no better way to accomplish the effect than to add disability. Just look at Richard III with his hump, Darth Vader with his prosthetics and breathing apparatus, and Davros with his chair. Look at every “insane murderer” trope in horror movies; bonus points if the killer is an escaped patient from a mental institution. In our cultural eye, disability is a great marker of who the villain is. If it is so in our movies and books, why should we not perceive it to be so in our country?

Do not accept the lies they will tell you about the Oregon shooter’s history of mental illness. They may tell you he may have sought psychiatric help at some point in the course of his life, and therefore he was mentally ill. They may claim he had some “obsession” or “single-minded interest” in violence; that he was a “loner” – in other words, they will lay the groundwork for a pop diagnosis of autism. They will dig up anything they can to prove that he was an exception, rather than an extreme example of the norm. They will do anything they can to shift the blame away from our violent, bigoted society, and back onto the disabled community.

Do not let them.