Autism As Criminal Defense

Using "autism" as a legal defense for criminal behavior bothers me. I think that's just an attempt to avoid responsibility for crimes, especially in cases in which a brilliant defendant uses Asperger's Syndrome as a defense for murder. I don't like that at all.

A story in the Washington Post has raised several questions about autism and violence on several online forums.
In Va. assault case, anxious parents recognize 'dark side of autism'

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 12:30 AM
When a Stafford County jury this month found an autistic teenager guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer and recommended that he spend 10.5 years in prison, a woman in the second row sobbed.

It wasn't the defendant's mother. She wouldn't cry until she reached her car. It was Teresa Champion.

Champion had sat through the trial for days and couldn't help drawing parallels between the defendant, Reginald "Neli" Latson, 19, and her son James, a 17-year-old with autism.
Champion said parents are just beginning to acknowledge what she calls the "dark side of autism," their children's capacity for aggression when they are frustrated, angry or overstimulated. Her son recently hit his attendant and attacked his father in front of a movie theater. Other parents describe scary episodes of biting, kicking and hitting.

It's not easy to talk about children lashing out, Champion said. But it's necessary because many are getting older and bigger and yearn for more independence, which leads to private struggles becoming public.
Is there research to support a connection between autism and violence? Maybe. Or maybe not.
  • Asperger's disorder and murder. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2005;33(3):390-3.
  • Autistic psychopathy or pervasive developmental disorder: how has Asperger's syndrome changed in the past sixty years? Nippon Rinsho. 2007 Mar;65(3):409-18. 
  • Criminal responsibility in Asperger's syndrome. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 2006;43(3):166-73. 
  • Violent crime in Asperger syndrome: the role of psychiatric comorbidity. J Autism Dev Disord. 2008 Nov;38(10):1848-52. Epub 2008 May 1.
One reason Asperger's Syndrome was classified as "autistic psychopathy" was the tendency to diagnose AS at an unusually high rate among young men charged with violent crimes. In recent years, AS diagnoses played a role in several murder cases -- from Hans Reiser to "Craigslist Killer" Michael Anderson. I count at least two dozen instances in the news database of using AS/autism as a defense in murder cases.
Michael John Anderson's Asperger's Syndrome was responsible for his decision to shoot Katherine Ann Olson in October 2007. A jury should know that mild autism is responsible for a murder suspect's apparent lack of remorse for killing a woman who responded to his online ad for a babysitter, his lawyer argued Thursday in Scott County court.
I've met with or been contacted by at least six autistic students accused of violence or threats of violence. I cannot comment on those individuals'' stories, but each told me that the health care professionals involved did cite AS as a contributing factor to either an actual action or the perception of potential violence. Being perceived as a threat is not the same as being a threat.

I really hate these stories, reflexively. I don't believe individuals with ASDs are any more or less violent than the general public. In fact, there are studies suggesting students with ASDs actually get into less trouble during their lives, as they prefer to follow rules rigidly. I'm not sure that's true, either. People are people, so I assume "good" and "evil" exist in every community.


  1. When I read the Washington Post story I wondered how long before this "autism is beautiful" type of commentary appeared. My 15 year old son is severely autistic ... by that I mean he has actual Autistic Disorder, he is low functioning and intellectually disabled. He occasionally suffers meltdown where, out of frustration, he hits his face and head with his hands. His situation as you should know is not unique. On very rare occasions he has bitten me in the midst of a meltdown.

    In January this year he was hitting himself in the face and heads and I could not talk him down or divert him from hitting himself. When I finally grabbed his arms to restrain him from hurting himself he lunged forward and bit my arm, not just skin deep, but into the bicep where I know has a calcium deposit. I do not believe he was trying to hurt me and I do not believe he would have passed any legal test with respect to the capacity to form the intent required of an assault. The incident resulted from his Autistic Disorder. Epidemiological or survey studies can not contradict this real life experience.

    My son brings me joy every day but there are times when his Autistic Disorder overwhelms him. That is his autism reality. You do my son and other autistic persons no good with your efforts to paint the beauty of autism and ignore some of the harsh realities of some autism disorders as manifested in the individuals who suffer from them.

    If you or your readers wish to visit my comment concerning the bite in January and see the picture of my arm taken the next day by my wife, fee free to do so:

  2. It's annoying when people try to put autism in a box like violent, prefer to follow rules, or any other generalization. The first line I heard is "If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism." Legal precedent can't be set except for an individual.

  3. Responding to: "You do my son and other autistic persons no good with your efforts to paint the beauty of autism and ignore some of the harsh realities of some autism disorders as manifested in the individuals who suffer from them."

    I have never called autism "beautiful" and I have written about the absurdity of the "little angel" mythology that often surrounds children with disabilities. If you read through this blog, more than a third of the postings deal with serious problems and limitations, not celebrations of autism or disabilities.

    Does this read like a glorification of autism?

    I quickly located four posts from within the last year on self-injurious behaviors and the risks they pose to people across the spectrum, especially during meltdowns. Those posts aren't about anything beautiful or some sort of "blessing" (another term I dislike for disabilities).

    There are self-advocates who describe themselves as "blessed" with autism or Asperger's Syndrome. I do no such thing and resent the implication. I've written, numerous times, that there are physical / neurological conditions I'd be pleased to jettison. That's true of many people with disabilities.

    The line for me is when someone mid-to-high-functioning starts to use autism as a legal defense for criminal conduct. The students I meet and speak to regularly are in high school and college courses. If they don't know when a behavior is or seems criminal, they can be taught and given guidelines. They should not and cannot be allowed to physically harm anyone, regardless of a disability, if they want to also advocate for inclusion. As a teacher, I do not want anyone with the potential for violent outbursts in a university classroom.

    Again, I've written repeatedly on why students with ASDs must learn to recognize and avoid meltdowns in university and professional settings. You don't get to excuse being a threat to yourself or others under the ADA or any other disability regulations. Some parents and students wonder why we can't "train everyone" to deal with meltdowns. I'm sorry, but that's just not feasible for every university, employer, and public space. We'd have to train 155 million U.S. adults to be autism experts, and that's not realistic. Plus, even the experts cannot handle some meltdowns.

    Last week I heard the concerns of a county system. They had to remove a 12-year-old autistic boy from his home. He was nearly six feet tall, over 170 pounds. They had to decide if he was a physical threat to peers, siblings, family, and so on. They made a tough decision, but one that had to be made. Someone that large with minimal verbal skills (I.Q. tested about 70) and self-injurious behavior is a "threat" to himself and others, sadly.

    So don't imply I don't know the students with whom I work. I also know most are not physically threatening to anyone. The worst cases are, thankfully, rare and often associated with co-morbid conditions.

  4. I don't know if this is an "autism is beautiful" post. In fact, it acknowledges the dark side that we kn ow about. My son is 3, has bit, hit, etc. He doesn't know it's wrong in a meltdown. That is beautiful?

  5. Actually the "autism is beautiful" post is over at "Cat in a Dog's world". This one is against the use of it as a legal defence. I agree. IMO if you can teach a 2yr old appropriate behaviour you can teach one with autism. I spent a lot of time and effort dealing with aggressive behaviour in my eldest. Reading back through his reports last week, throughout them has it listed as a parental concern. As the child psychiatrist told us 3yrs ago now, the battle will be ongoing every day. To this day I am surprised that 11.5yr old is doing well at school and not in a behavioural classroom.

    We taught him. We used speech therapy, education (3R's school, tutors and homeschooling), token systems, social stories, taking away of favourite items and the word "No". Some claim that the severely autistic cannot understand these things and I beg to differ. If they can run a basic computer program, follow a child's tv show, follow basic instructions they can learn to behave appropriately and learn alternative ways to deal when things go wrong.

    My youngest knows at school to go over to his folder, find the social story he needs and will sit and review it while calming himself. Some would say he's not severely autistic... Yes, he is, but he's been taught to read, taught comprehension and taught that meltdowns are not appropriate and how to seek appropriate resolutions. You spill something, clean it up. Your socks are wet, go get new ones. Scream at me and I'll walk away. Ask me nicely, even if it's the word "help" prompted with the sign by his Mother... I'll help you.

    Autism may be the reason for behaviour, but it is not the excuse for it. But, since the prevailing attitude is that autism + behaviour = OK... we are seriously considering the option of removing him from school at Gr 7 since I will never put him in harms way of violent children or adults.

  6. Autism as a criminal defense is certainly the right thing to do in some cases.

    Google "Sky Walker Autism".

    C.S. , Sky's case and others like his is just another way that we, as people with HFA, really shouldn't be using the term "autism" as if it were all encompassing. You can't make blanket statements about people you don't know or have any experience with.

  7. Anon:

    I clearly stated it is supposedly "brilliant" men and women using "autism" as a legal defense that troubles me.

    I also pointed out that I've been consulted on cases when young people clearly did pose a risk to themselves and others (see above). There are times, especially in non-verbal and low-IQ cases, when incompetency is a legal defense. I don't believe it is a defense in the case recounted in the Washington Post, nor do I believe it was an acceptable defense in various high-profile murder cases. That's merely my opinion based on the reported facts.

  8. Farmwifetwo you are talking absolute nonsense. I"MO if you can teach a 2yr old appropriate behaviour you can teach one with autism". I have taught my neurotypical children appropriate behavior at 2 yrs, in the same way I tried to teach my autistic son. They do not learn in the same way. Autistic children need specialised help - and those who do not receive it, can experience severe problems in their life. If this leads to criminal behaviour, never having received a diagnosis (often after numerous attempts) and help, why should it NOT be used as a defence?


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