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Erasing the Prejudice – Are People on the Spectrum Really More Violent?

An Interview with Dr. Tony Attwood, PhD, AS/ASD expert

As the mother of a Spectrum Teen, I am becoming concerned about prejudice against persons with Autism Spectrum/Autism Spectrum Disorder (AS/ASD) because of three shootings that occurred in the U.S. where the shooters were identified as having AS.

As a mother, I want to protect and advocate against false linkages that “the autism/Asperger’s” was the fault or blame in these senseless acts of violence. It is important to remember that having a disorder/syndrome does not preclude an individual from having other disorders that could significantly affect mental functioning.

For example, a person with cancer could also have another medical issue, such as diabetes or heart disease. The same is important to remember with a person on the autism spectrum. However, Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook 2012), James Holmes (Aurora, CO 2012) and now Chris Harper Mercer (Oregon 2015) have all been said to have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Is there a connection?

In reference to the Lanza/Sandy Hook shooting, assistant professor of pediatrics and psychology at Ohio University, Dr. Eric Butter was quoted in US News and World Report as saying, “Aggression that we see in autism can best be described as disruptive and irritable behavior and is often consistent with the communication and social difficulties that are the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders.” He added, “It is a very human experience that when you cannot explain how you are feeling, that you will then act out in frustration, anger, and aggression.

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But, it is not consistent with the diagnosis that you would plan and execute a crime like we saw here.” Aggression that leads to this kind of planned, violent, criminal act is not mentioned as a symptom in the current DSMIV or the new DSM5.” Butter also said that between 20-30% of persons with autism act out aggressively, but the aggression is usually a reaction or impulsive outburst. “The autistic person may be quick to shout in anger or push or shove or throw something, but methodical planning of murderous acts is not related to the spectrum.”

Autism Spectrum is not a mental illness. In the three cases cited above, a mental health issue was more than likely the issue that would lead to causation. At a conference held in Atlanta, GA (2012) Dr. Tony Attwood, world renowned expert in Asperger’s syndrome said, “The ASD individual is actually more prone to a depression attack that could result in suicidal more than homicidal violence.” Attwood said those on the spectrum can have a sudden “depression attack” that comes on quickly and strongly, as with a person who experiences panic disorder. The depression attack can come with few warning signs; thus, cognitive therapy for AS/ASD teens is a pro-active tool to combat such a depression.”

However, it would be negligent to not discuss the possibility that a special interest (which is a symptom of AS/ASD) can become a clinical concern. The common thread of Lanza, Holmes, and Harper-Mercer is not simply the Asperger’s but that each potentially had a mood disorder, each story claimed the person had been bullied or felt rejected/isolated, and each had a special interest in weaponry/retribution. This combination is the subject of what becomes a clinical concern.

A previous blog posted for American Association of Christian Counselors, “Special Interests: The Good, the Bad, the Dangerous” paints a broader view of special interests. For the most part special interests can be challenging or used to motivate persons on the spectrum, but there is a word of caution from Dr. Attwood when special interests cross the line of challenging to a clinical issue. Here is some advice from the renowned clinical psychologist where he discusses the subject of special interests:

Dr. Attwood: “The intensity or focus is what first becomes clinically significant. If the child loves Thomas the Train and spending time in that activity is pleasurable and reduces stress this is acceptable. It becoming clinically significant when mum or dad says it is time to put Thomas down and come each lunch or time to put Thomas down and do school work and is met with a NO! or refusal behaviors. It is no longer just about an enjoyable activity it is an obsession, even irresistible, a compulsive behavior that has to be dealt with clinically as such.”

Holmes: So what are some of the un-healthy or concerning issues to be concerned about with special interests when working with AS/ASD persons? Special interests that can become problematic (even with legal recourse) can include weaponry, first person shooter games, movies that glorify violence as retribution, arson, and pornography.

Dr. Attwood: “Many times, an AS/ASD person may be experiencing being bullied or in some situation that they feel powerless which can then lead to the desire to have power. This can lead to a fascination with guns or other weaponry or movies where the hero of the Hollywood story is being bullied but he solves the problem by destroying the bad guys so to speak. So this special interest can feed the idea that violence is the solution to the problem and we do not want them to see violence as the solution.” Dr. Attwood said that if an AS/ASD adolescent or young adult struggling with depression or darker moods has an intense interest or focus on drugs/ alcohol, pornography, weapons, self-harm, or even junk food, these are things to be concerned about.

Holmes: What is happening with the brain and wiring that leads to the intensity of focus?

Dr. Attwood: “What we have here is an issue with the frontal lobes and executive functioning. This lack of flexibility or what we call lack of theory of mind contributes to the one track mind which is what I call ‘Frank Sinatra’ or ‘my way’ only thinking and not being able to take in other people’s perspective or opinions. This lack of flexibility, rigidity really contributes to this frontal lobe dysfunction.”

In my previous 2014 interview with Dr. Attwood he said that studies that show “no impact” on teens that spend countless hours playing violent and graphic video games are done on neurotypical (NT) teens. There is a need, however, for study and research to assess the impact of these games on the AS/ASD theory of mind. Again, this does not say if a person with AS/ASD plays these games they are dangerous. It is a parental responsibility to monitor the time and intensity the child has with these games. If the belief becomes that violence can solve the bullying issue or make one powerful this is when we need to be concerned. A similar interest in fire or arson can stem from this feeling of powerlessness. As an autism specialist and professional counselor, I urge parents to be vigilant of the special interests your spectrum child engages in approaching the tween and teen years. The interest combined with intensity and focus and how he or she responds when it is time to stop the interest to engage in something else is a red flag that the interest is becoming a clinical concern or obsession. If the person is being bullied or does not have a social group or sense of belonging and has begun isolating, this is another concern. Helping the spectrum tween/teen find a social group and interact with people in person (not solely on chat groups or Facebook or other social media) is a proactive method in addition to cognitive therapy, relationship skills building, and sense of purpose or belonging perhaps volunteering for a cause that is important to the spectrum person.

holmes stephanie

Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister and Licensed Christian Counselor with the Board of Examiners for Georgia Christian Counselors and Therapists and was formerly an LPC in North Carolina. She is a Board Certified Christian Counselor through the AACC’s Board of Christian Professional and Pastoral Counselors and a Certified Autism Specialist. Stephanie’s career path changed when her eldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She began to change her focus to helping families deal with their frustrations and challenges of having a special needs child. Stephanie practices counseling at her home church, Calvary Atlanta and advocates for special needs families. She specializes in Aspie- NT marriage therapy and has clients across the country through Skype consultation. She speaks nationally about AS/ASD and families, Spectrum Teens, and Aspie- NT marriage. Her newly published book Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How infertility and autism grew my faith, walks you through her personal journey as well as give you clinical advice from her clinical experience of 10 years in the AS/ASD field. www.counselorstephanieholmes.com

Professor Tony Attwood is a clinical psychologist who has specialized in autism spectrum disorders since he qualified as a clinical psychologist in England in 1975. He currently works in his own private practice, and is also adjunct professor at Griffith University, Queensland and senior consultant at the Minds and Hearts clinic in Brisbane. His book Asperger’s Syndrome – A Guide for Parents and Professionals has sold over 350,000 copies and has been translated into over 25 languages. His subsequent book, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, was published in October 2006 and is one of the primary textbooks on Asperger’s syndrome. He has several subsequent books published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Future Horizons Inc. and Guilford Press. Tony has been invited to be a keynote speaker at many Australasian and International Conferences. He presents workshops and runs training courses for parents, professionals and individuals with Asperger’s syndrome all over the world and is a prolific author of scientific papers and books on the subject. He has worked with many thousands of individuals of all ages with Asperger’s syndrome or an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The dates for Tony’s USA presentation tour in October 2016 are as follows:

Monday, October 10th Boston, MA – AANE
Wednesday, October 12th Ann Arbor, MI – The Autism Society of Michigan/Metro Parent
Saturday, October 15th Long Island, NY – AHA
Monday, October 17th St. Louis, MO – Judevine Center
Wednesday, October 19th St. Paul, MN – ASA of Minnesota
Friday, October 21st Boise, ID – Peak Conference

Further details of Tony’s 2016 USA Fall presentation tour will be posted on his website in early 2016: www.tonyattwood.com.au.



Future Horizon Conference. Dr. Tony Attwood. Atlanta, GA (2012)

This article was featured in Issue 42 – Autism: Fighting the Stigmas

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