Autism is Linked to Violence

Violence is linked to autism.  Really.

Two recent, horrifying massacres involved a possibly autistic person and one of their parents.

But that’s not the only link, by any means.

All of the victims were autistic.  The parents who murdered were not reported as being autistic, and most are, presumably, neurotypical.

So you see, yes, there is a connection between autism and violence.  Autistics are murdered by mothers or fathers at an alarming frequency.  I found these in about 5 minutes of Googling.  There are many, many more out there.  I stopped researching the murders of autistic people years ago because of how sad it is to do, and seeing the above list fills me with sadness.

When a presumed autistic person kills, the discussion becomes one of locking up people like him – autistics and mentally ill.

When a mother kills her autistic kid, the discussion focuses on how hard it is to raise an autistic kid.

Even as dead murder victims we’re at fault.

Often it will be pointed out that many of the mothers or fathers who kill their autistic kid (who may be a child or may be an adult) also kill themselves, and people will say, “You can see how horrible that person’s life was, that’s why they killed themselves.”  When an autistic person commits murder and then kills themselves, the discussion is about what a monster they were.

Now, I’m not saying that a murderer isn’t a monster.  I’m shocked and saddened by the horrible loss of life in Connecticut.  But I do note a double-standard that reflects society’s bias towards the mentally ill and autistic.

Mentally ill and autistic people are much more likely to be murdered by their parents than to murder their parents.  Nobody would suggest that autistic people’s parents should be locked up.  I’d like to suggest that we quit suggesting that for mentally ill and autistic people too.

In hindsight, do I wish the Connecticut shooter was locked away and/or received effective support and treatment?  Sure.  Of course.  Just as I wish each of the mothers and fathers above could have.

I beg parents of autistics to blog with perspective and fact.  Yes, there are violent autistics.  Your kid might be.  But, there are also violent non-autistic parents.  It would be unfair of me to paint a loving parent who would never harm their child as a potential murderer.  Likewise, it’s unfair – and unsupported by science – to claim that autistics or mentally ill people are more likely to commit violent acts.  It’s simply not true.  And, yes, it’s been studied.

Violence is linked to autism.  Autistics are the victims.

Where’s the Real Risk?

The shootings in Connecticut have touched our raw emotions.  It’s absolutely horrible that someone would take the lives of children at their school.  So I want to start this by saying that I too am very sad that an evil act took these lives from this world.  I can’t understand why someone would do such a thing.  I also think it’s appropriate to grieve and to remember those who are still with us with refocused intensity.

One concern I have however is that in the discussions of gun control, mental health care accessibility, and school security – certainly issues that are important and should be discussed – is that we’ve lost fact of the real risks.

The CDC studies why Americans die and releases reports on exactly that.  For 5-9 year olds, the most common causes of death in 2009 (in the US) were:

  • Accidents (31%)
  • Malignant Neoplasms (19%)
  • Congenital Malformations, Deformations, and Chromosomal Abnormalities (8%)
  • Assault/Homicide (5%)
  • Influenza/Pneumonia (4%)
  • Diseases of the Heart (4%)
  • Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases (3%)
  • In Situ Neoplasms, Benign Neoplasms and Neoplasms of Uncertain or Unknown Behavior (2%)
  • Septicemia (1%)
  • Cerebrovascular Disease (1%)

For 10-14 year olds:

  • Accident (29%)
  • Malignant Neoplasms (13%)
  • Intentional Self-Harm/Suicide (8%)
  • Assault/Homicide (6%)
  • Congenital Malformations, Deformations, and Chromosomal Abnormalities (5%)
  • Influenza/Pneumonia (4%)
  • Diseases of the Heart (4%)
  • Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases (2%)
  • In Situ Neoplasms, Benign Neoplasms and Neoplasms of Uncertain or Unknown Behavior (1%)
  • Cerebrovascular Disease (1%)

In both cases, accidents, not murder, top the list.  The leading cause of accidental death is a traffic accident.  That said, it’s still rare for a child to die – the death rate per 100,000 4-9 year olds is 12 per 100,000 people in that age group per year.  The rate for 10-14 year olds is 15 per 100,000 people in that group per year.  However, even the mass murder in Connecticut doesn’t have a significant impact on these statistics.  Over 5,500 children between ages 4 and 14 die per year.

Certainly, we all want schools to be safe.  We also want them to be welcoming.  We want them to spend our tax dollars wisely so that children grow up to be the best adults they can be.  We want parents and the community to know what is being taught to children  Sometimes these goals are contradictory.

And some of the proposed solutions are worse than the problem.  Sure, we can make schools more secure from outside threats.  Will that stop a teacher or other student who is authorized to be there?  Will these things contribute to better transparency and accountability for educators and school systems, or will they hamper those efforts?  Will we increase the internal threat to reduce the external threat?

Sure, we can arm teachers – I’ve heard suggestions of anything from handguns to tazers.  How long would it take for the tazer to be used on a special needs student who is upset about a change in his routine, but not dangerous?  How long would it take for a teacher to misplace his gun, and have that gun found by a student?  There’s a reason most prison guards don’t carry guns – even in a prison, surrounded by criminals, and on the person of a well trained law enforcement employee, the gun is more likely to be used against the officer than to protect the officer.

You want to make kids safer?  Get the flu shot.  If we didn’t give the flu to children, by being vaccinated, we would cut 3% of deaths among 4-14 year olds – or a bit over 1/2 of the number of children murdered each year.  Wouldn’t that be a good thing?  Strangely, I don’t see the flu shot getting the press time that the murder did (nor even 1/2 the time).  Certainly the flu doesn’t inspire the same raw emotions as a shooter attacking children, but it’s just as serious when it’s a child you know.

After doing the flu shot – just about the easiest thing we can do to help save children – we need to address traffic deaths.  Traffic deaths kill 19% of the 4-14 year olds that die each year in the US.  And we know how to do this.  We know it’s things like ensuring we aren’t distracted when we’re driving, not drinking and driving, following traffic (and speed) laws, and giving up our licenses when we’re not able to drive safely.  Yet, it’s far easier to think about putting stronger doors on schools than to change our own behavior.  We care about children’s death – so long as it’s something government can buy rather than something we have to do.

Then we get to suicide.  5% of 4-14 year old deaths in the US are due to suicide.  That’s over 2/3rds the total that is murdered.  But of course we have organizations in the US that have made anti-bullying programs political, so we won’t see real progress there.  Preserving the right of bullies to bully is more politically safe than actually helping the victims – ask the Anoka-Hennepin School District who preferred to foster an environment that promoted suicides rather than ignore right-wing churches.

Finally, there’s been a ton of rhetoric on mentally ill.  Most people distance themselves from someone who could murder children.  They want to know what the difference between themselves and the murderer is.  In this case, they want to say, “he was autistic” or “he was mentally ill.”  Of course they don’t really mean mentally ill is a problem – they mean “mentally ill in a way I’m not,” since up to 1 in 4 people may experience mental illness of one type or another.  And categorizing mental illness as the problem in this shooting does little to get people help.

For what it’s worth, mentally ill people are far more likely to die at their own hands or those of someone else’s than to kill.  Did you know 24% of recognized mentally ill adults report they have been the victim of violence in the last 12 months?  Let that sink in for a minute – 1 in 4 EACH AND EVERY YEAR.  Think about someone who lives more than 4 years as a mentally ill adult.  In the article linked above, Simon Smith says, “Although research suggests that there are factors that may increase risks of violence – such as co-occurring substance use, or not being engaged in treatment – people living with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”

Yes, we have to do more to protect children in the US.  And we should look at the recent mass-murder in Connecticut and find ways we can realistically help keep kids safe.  But not at the expense of ignoring even larger elephants in the room, nor at the expense of making children less safe rather than more safe.  Our safety initiatives should be based on fact and evidence, not just emotion.  And before we throw up to 1/4 of our fellow citizens behind bars, to “protect” the children, perhaps we need to look a bit deeper.

A Sad Day

Anytime a life is prematurely ended is a sad day.

Today was a particularly sad day for many.

We can respond to acts of violence and hatred in many ways.  There’s not one right way to respond.  That’s fine.  But one thing we can all do is to look at our own lives and the people around us.  Are we treating those around us in a way worthy of the value of life?

It’s a good time to forgive.  It’s a good time to love.  It’s a good time to help.

And it’s a good time to remember.  Today we are all Newton, Connecticut.

How to Create a Bully in an “Accepting” Environment

A lot of autistic people like black and white rules.  We want rules that make it clear what is, and what isn’t, acceptable.  Unfortunately, not all the world works that way.  While clear, concise, easy-to-summarize rules are ideal, they simply don’t fit in every situation.  In fact, they can make things worse for autistic people (and others prone to being victimized by others’ abuse).

One of the favored technique of my childhood abusers (the bullies, I.E. those who assaulted and battered me) was to provoke me to violence or meltdown.  They would simply learn the rules of the classroom and manipulate those in a way that was a bit more socially cleaver than I could.  For instance, they might know that a certain sound was nearly unbearable for me, while the teacher didn’t.  They might also know that this sound wasn’t considered a violation of rules (perhaps it was free time or lunch).  And they might know that my reaction to the sound would render me unable to clearly communicate.

So, the abusers, knowing this information, would provoke the meltdown.  When I screamed, punched at the abusers (note that I was much, much smaller than them and couldn’t have done any physical harm to them even if I wanted to when not overloaded), ran from the room, or otherwise responded in the only ways that I could – note I say ONLY ways, and this is important – I would then find myself in trouble, sometimes serious trouble.  And of course I wouldn’t be able to defend myself eloquently (or likely any way other than screaming incoherently).

So what happened?  I stayed after school.  The abusers may have even been seen as victims of my unpredictable violence.

Yet my “violence” wasn’t unpredictable.  The abusers predicted it, and, in fact, sought it.  They were hardly victims of an unstable, mentally defective kid.  No, they were already showing the signs of sociopathic behavior.

Yet, what, objective, verifiable, non-subjective events occurred?  Two did – and this is why a non-subjective, black-and-white evaluation is not sufficient:

  • The abusers made some sounds, which were allowed by school rules (some noise is of course allowed at some times of the day!)
  • The victim reacted violently, loudly, and incoherently, against school rules

To solve this with central authority (I.E. teachers, principals, etc), the central authority would need two things.  First, they would need to have empathy and a deep social understanding of the situation, including the motives that were at play.  Secondly, they would need the ability to articulate that to others in authority and to the abusers.  They would need to show that they weren’t going to be a tool the bully uses to abuse their victim.

Most teachers fail at that.  So do most organizations that claim to be supportive of disabled people.  It’s hard, and true social understanding a rare gift among both autistics and neurotypicals.

I see this behavior online frequently.  Someone will try to skirt the rules of a forum or group, and provoke others.  When there is a lack of moderator or SIGNIFICANT community opposition to intentional provocation, it’s only a matter of time before someone is provoked and violates a formal, black-and-white rule.  Yet the destructive element in the community was not the formal rule violator.  Rather, the problem was the guy (or gal) that walked-the-line and stayed just shy of crossing it.  That person had malice.

When rules don’t recognize the difference between provocation (malice) and response, the bully has been given a true weapon.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to put malice into a black and white rule.  And often when a leader or community stands up to such bullies, the bully will publicly, loudly, and, often, successfully claim to actually be the victim!  After all, they “didn’t violate even one rule, but are now being excluded.”  Particularly in communities where people have been excluded for inappropriate reasons, people will sympathize with the person claiming to be unfairly excluded.

In autistic circles, there’s a further element.  The destructive bully will know the community norms.  He’ll know we want black-and-white rules, because we have trouble sometimes with following, with good, non-malicious intentions, the fuzzy rules.  So he’ll point out that he violated a fuzzy rule, to gain our sympathy.  It’s easy to see his side and say, “Wow, I could have done that too.  It’s hard to know what the rules are if they are fuzzy, and if they are going to throw people out for that…that’s unfair.”  Ironically, this typically leads to a call for black-and-white rules, which are the exact tool that the bully needs to cause even more havoc in the community!

We need to be cognizant of this in our communities.  It’s okay to exclude someone who intends to destroy a community, even if they are clever and able to walk just inside the line of what is covered by black-and-white rules.  We don’t need people operating under malice.  We don’t need, nor should we tolerate, the bully.  But we need to recognize what bullying looks like.  It’s not the autistic child provoked to meltdown who then strikes out at their antagonizer.  Yet, that’s exactly who the black-and-white rules would say was the bully.

We must not enable bullies by immediately sympathizing with them.  We need to recognize that it’s possible to follow the black-and-white rules, yet be a very destructive and dangerous person.  Yes, dangerous.  And we need to agree we don’t want those people in our midst, or at least we don’t want to give them the weapons to inflict damage.

Yes, people are excluded for bad reasons too.  When an autistic misunderstands a rule and unknowingly violates a fuzzy rule, this is not the time for exclusion.  And we need to fight against that exclusion.  But throwing out all fuzzy rules isn’t something that creates an inclusive environment.  It creates bullies.  Intention can be everything.

Peace…it’s not a bad thing

Okay, not about autism today either.  But I wanted to write something after watching the news from Libya and watching reactions from politicians and religious figures.

I have deep Christian beliefs.  That’s one of the reasons I’m so sad when I see the perversion of my religion made into a hateful, judgmental, legalistic thing.  My religion is living to me, not a bunch of rules.

Yet too many Christians want to condemn all Muslims for the attack against the American embassy in Libya.  Which is exactly the same thing that the extremists did in Libya when they lumped all Americans into one category.  We can argue about the right to offend people versus the right to not be offended, but at the end of the day I can’t believe that we’ve got a future as a species if we’re going to go around trying to piss each other off and show how right we are -or- if we are going to murder people of the “wrong” nationality in retribution for offense (note that I’m not saying offending someone is morally equivalent to murder, as clearly it isn’t, at least to me).

But some can’t seem to handle people not believing the same things they believe.  From my standpoint, It’s almost as if people want war.  In the name of their God.  Yuck.

My hope is that some of us don’t, and eventually we’ll find better ways of disagreeing with one another.