From Forbes Magazine
By Emily Willingham
May 21, 2014
According to mental health professionals who personally diagnosed serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, he had a personality disorder. That didn’t stop the authors of a recent paper attempting to link autism and mass murderers, serial killers, and other homicidal maniacs from listing Dahmer as “highly suspected” of having an autism spectrum disorder, along with another 61 other people who were never diagnosed with one, including Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and Dylan Klebold.
I’ve seen some recklessness in my wanderings through the world of autism science, but these authors reach depths I cannot fathom. If you doubt that, let me just point out that they use the Daily Mail as one of their citations to demonstrate that a killer not diagnosed with autism might have it, and cite an author who very much wants to make up a diagnostic category called “Criminal Autistic Psychopathy” as a subset of Asperger’s. Which no longer exists.
In their paper, which is making a splash, of course, Clare Allely and co-authors claim that 67 of the 239 “eligible killers” they evaluated in their review had “definite, highly probable, or possible” autism spectrum disorder. But a closer look at their numbers shows that of these, only six were in the “definite” category [ETA: details on those six summarized here]. That’s 2.5% of the total of 239 they examined. It’s a percentage that happens to be just slightly less than the 2.6% identified in the most thorough study of autism prevalence in the general population to date, in South Korea.
The evaluations of the South Korean population were thorough, but perhaps no other population receives more expert attention and evaluation than killers like these who survive their crimes, as Dahmer, McVeigh, and Ramirez did, and killers who do not but whose writings and other leavings undergo deep scrutiny from experts involved in their cases.
Their evaluations are not a mystery. Psychologists had access to Dahmer and evaluated him. Psychologists had access to Richard Ramirez (the Nightstalker) and evaluated him. Ditto McVeigh. These are professionals who personally evaluated these killers, and “autism” was not on their list of labels.
It is inappropriate for anyone–much less these authors, giving the imprimatur of science and peer review–to diagnose from a distance someone they have never even met and with whose case they are not deeply familiar.
Add to that their conflation of mass murderers and serial killers, whose psychic motivations can be very different, and this entire paper is one big, hot, irresponsible mess.
One that, I’ll add, is quite opaque on the criteria they used to diagnose these killers as “highly probable” or “possible” for having an autism spectrum disorder and at one point elides it completely by referencing “evidence of ASD traits.” Everyone shares autism traits–autistic people aren’t Martians with an entirely separate set of nonhuman behaviors.
That doesn’t make everyone autistic, including people who might have overlapping traits and commit terrible acts. And autistic people who do commit terrible acts are no more representative of autism than are the men who commit such acts representative of men in general.
Evidence-based studies examining established commonalities among people who commit crimes like this can be enlightening, but wild speculation and retrospective diagnosing do nothing useful and can cause considerable harm to law-abiding people who carry any of these labels, whether autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or others that have been suggested.
Autistic people are people, and like other people, some tiny percentage of them can engage in violent behaviors, although overall, they “almost never” target anyone outside their families, plan the violence, or use weapons.
There is no single or even group of diagnoses that explains or predicts the horrific behavior of mass murderers. And some unsupported assumptions about autism – such as the continued canard that autistic people lack empathy (they do not) – help no one, and certainly don’t guide us to way to prevent such tragedies.
I’ve written about this issue before because of the link between Adam Lanza and autism, and the unifying feature of people who commit crimes like this isn’t a failure of eye contact in childhood or being quirky or weird or distanced–none of which is remotely pathognomonic for autism. The vast majority who commit these crimes are men. Some, including Timothy McVeigh, have or had conditions common to many many of us, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic attacks, all of which the psychiatrist who evaluated McVeigh identified.
That doesn’t mean that we need to starting eyeing depressed men askance or spend time searching around the archives of serial killer and mass murder cases for “evidence of depressive traits” so that we can retrospectively diagnose them with depression.
Serial killers aren’t like mass murderers. They are compulsive sadists–not a feature of autism–who do tend to lack empathy. Some are angry. Mass murderers like McVeigh might share that lack of empathy, but they have something else that drives them, too. Another feature of McVeigh’s psyche, according to that diagnostician, was anger. Rage. Hatred.
The authors of this egregious paper helpfully provide some silly Venn diagrams that allegedly show the overlap of autism, brain injury, and emotional distress. But as I’ve written before, the real unifying feature of most mass murderers isn’t any of these. It’s the anger and the rage, often blasted outward at innocent targets by way of easily accessible firearms. No autism required … or, in the vast majority of cases even identified in this paper … diagnosed.