Those of us who have worked with individuals with autism know that some of the behaviors we’ve seen, mesh with some of the warning signs of violence. It’s important that we learn to separate these two things to get a clearer picture of what is attributable to autism and doesn’t carry a risk of violence, and what may be a warning sign that needs attention.
Isolation, challenges with social interactions and emotional regulation, low frustration tolerance, intense interests/fixation, depression, anxiety and inflexibility can be signs of autism. They can also be warning signs that something is not going well with a neurotypical individual.
How do we know the difference?
Some questions to ask include: has the person been diagnosed with autism? Is there existing comorbidity with a mental illness or personality disorder? Are there new stressors in his/her life? What have others observed? Any recent changes in behavior? Does the person grasp social nuances? Does he or she understand and back off if told that behavior is inappropriate? Does the person exhibit social naivete? This list is barely scratching the surface as the interplay between these elements is highly complex.
Inquire of the person of concern: is this something you feel frequently? Is it normal for you? Is something new going on that has triggered these feelings? Can you tell me more about it? How long have you been dealing with this? Do you understand why this behavior is inappropriate? Do you think you’ll be able to change it?
Consider: Is this person on a pathway to violence? Is there evidence of holding a grudge? Is there evidence of planning for revenge or violence? Has the person mentioned revenge or violence to others? These are important indicators of potential violence in both neurotypical and neurodivergent persons. The possibility also exists that an individual with autism may become an unwitting partner in crime of violence, in part, because of his or her naivete and vulnerability. Comorbidity also increases violence risk for individuals with autism.
We need to realize that autism affects just .08 of the population. Yet, when researchers studied the Mother Jones database of lone shooters, they found diagnosed ASD in 8% of shooters and some indicators of ASD in 21% of shooters. While it’s more likely that a person with autism will be a victim than a perpetrator of violence, some typical behaviors and social/emotional challenges experienced by an individual with autism are similar to those exhibited by a person on the pathway to violence.
It’s critical to have an in-depth developmental history and mental health assessment done by a licensed mental health clinician with training in the factors related to violence risk. It’s also vital to understand that ASD individuals are not more likely to perpetrate violence than the general population. Rather, the coexistence of psychosis, psychopathy, mood disorders and developmental failures, and adverse early experiences contribute to increased risk of violence.
It’s up to us to investigate any warning signs and do what we can to assist with troubling emotions. But, it’s not at all easy to distinguish the root of these behaviors and emotions. I recommend doing additional research on this complex topic and partnering with a psychologist or psychiatrist if you are faced with this situation. I’ve listed some resources below to get you started.
White, S. G., Meloy, J. R., Mohandie, K., & Kienlen, K. (2017). Autism spectrum disorder and violence: Threat assessment issues. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 4(3), 144–163. https://doi.org/10.1037/tam0000089
Allely, C.S., Minnis, H., Thompson, L., Wilson, P. & Gillberg, C. (2014). Neurodevelopmental and psychosocial risk factors in serial killers and mass murders. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19, 288-301. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2014.04.004
Allely, C. S., Wilson, P., Minnis, H., Thompson, L., Yaksic, E., & Gillberg, C. (2017). Violence is rare in autism: When it does occur, is it sometimes extreme? The Journal of Psychology, 151, 49–68.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2016.1175998