The Truth About Asperger's Syndrome & Criminal Behavior

This post explores the question whether teens and young adults diagnosed with Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism) have a greater probability than typically-developing peers of becoming involved in delinquent or criminal activity.

The alternative perspective under consideration is that the characteristic traits and behaviors associated with Aspergers (e.g., poorly developed theory of mind, obsessions, etc.) may lead to a greater vulnerability to accusations of offending behavior despite no criminal intent, especially when there appears to be little regard for the effect of certain behaviors on other people.

Although several studies have suggested an association between violent crime and Aspergers, few have examined the underlying reasons. Research needs to determine to what extent psychiatric factors contribute to offending behavior in this population.

Of the 37 cases described in one recent research project, 11 cases (29.7%) had a definite psychiatric disorder and 20 cases (54%) had a probable psychiatric disorder at the time of committing the crime. These findings underscore the role of psychiatric disorders in the occurrence of violent crime in teens and young adults with Aspergers and highlight the need for their early diagnosis and treatment.

The review of available findings and observations by Allen et al (2007) set out to highlight evidence by which to support or refute the suggested association between Aspergers and offending against the law that has become a subject for much debate.

Reference is made, for example, to the work of Haskins and Silva (2006) whose initial research data indicated that teens and young adults with Aspergers are over-represented among the population of known offenders relative to their prevalence in the general population.

On the other hand, Howlin (2004) has argued that any association that is perceived between Aspergers and crime is the result of a small number of cases which have given rise to much publicity and to (speculative) causal attributions in the media.

Allen et al recognize how this kind of link may come to be perceived in that, in his original description, Asperger (1944) noted that some kids carried out what could be defined as malicious acts either of an aggressive or sexual nature without any apparent regard for the impact upon other people.

However, the question is raised about the actual intent or motive behind these and other offensive actions; and Howlin argues that significant underlying factors include a reaction to a lack of social understanding of situations (or of being misunderstood by other people), the pursuit of some obsessional interest, and a failure to anticipate consequences.

There is also the possibility that the individual concerned would not have the capacity to avoid pressures from peers to engage in malicious or delinquent activity.

This view concerning problems in verbal and non-verbal communication, social understanding, and flexibility of thought or action has become commonly expressed; and reference is made to a number of factors which could explain why someone with Aspergers may have an increased risk for offending behavior:
  • An (innate) lack of concern for the outcomes of actions
  • Failure to understand (formal) questioning and an over-frankness
  • Impulsive behavior which may be stimulated by an underlying anxiety
  • Misreading of social signals and a lack of knowledge of social rules which may underlie accusations of sexual misconduct
  • Obsessional interests which may be reflected in behavior such as stalking
  • Resistance or limited motivation to change may underlie a persistence of inappropriate behaviors
  • Social immaturity, and a misinterpretation of “friendships”, with a vulnerability to being led by others into inappropriate or illegal behavior

It has been suggested (by Debbaudt 2002 among others) that certain types of illegal acts may have diagnostic significance and lead to the identification of previously unrecognized Aspergers. These include an (obsessive) harassment of other people, acting-out for no observable reason, computer crime, and offenses arising from misjudged personal relationships.

Allen et al have also been able to identify a number of forensic case studies which have provided illustrations of how the particular characteristics of Aspergers may predispose the people to offending.

Their summary indicates that there are three key types of offense that are consistently reported: sexual offenses, violent offenses, and arson. Frequently, there was a ready admission of the actions, with the reasonable implication that the offenses themselves and the reactions afterwards reflect central features of Aspergers, namely preoccupations, self-centered “logic”, interpersonal naiveté, and low empathy.

However, the authors identify a problem applicable to a case study approach in that, when assessing the circumstances of some offense committed by a person identified with Aspergers, it is virtually inevitable that there will be a focus upon aspects of this condition that can be linked to the offending behavior. There is a lack of evidence concerning variables that differentiate among people with Aspergers who have been involved in offending and those who have not.

Just because someone with Aspergers offends does not mean that this condition is a inevitable and universal risk factor for offending ... (and one is reminded of the consistent finding that a number of risk factors, e.g. living in a high delinquency area, poor achievement at school, etc, may differentiate between groups of teenagers whose probability of offending are respectively high and low, but such variables may be much less accurate in predicting the behavior of a given person).

In respect of experimental studies, reference is made to the work of Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004) who demonstrated that the capacity for empathy is indeed lower among people with Aspergers than in the general population.

However, while this limited empathy might be thought to be a risk factor for offending, it was further shown that the characteristic problems of interpreting the behavior and feelings of other people are not associated with any wish to cause harm to those other people.

When it was pointed out that their behavior could be hurtful, this sample of people with Aspergers offered expressions of regret, but they could not see that their own actions were responsible for causing the hurt.

In other words, there is support for the hypothesis that limited or absent theory of mind, (an inability to read the signals and reactions of other people), coupled with unusual and repetitive interests, is significant for offending behavior among people with Aspergers.

As far as actual prevalence of offending behavior is concerned, inconsistent findings emerge from existing studies.

Tantam (2003) found that acts of violence towards others, such as lashing out, were common in an Aspergers population; and there is a consensus among various studies that sexual offenses, aggression, and arson are particularly prevalent.

However, the problem with much of the evidence available for review by Allen et al is that it is based upon very selective samples of people with Aspergers, typically those attending specialist hospitals.

It is consistently noted that there is an over-representation of such people among the population of known offenders in these hospitals, but the question is raised whether this kind of statistic which applies to people who have committed serious offenses, can be generalized to the overall Aspergers population. There is the further possibility that the significant association is between offending and some co-morbid condition rather than with the Aspergers per se.

The National Autistic Society (2004) presented the view that only a minority of people with Aspergers become offenders and that there is no association between autism and crime ... (although one might ponder whether autism and Aspergers are comparable in this respect given that the people with Aspergers are more likely to work in mainstream settings and to be exposed to the behaviors and relationship patterns of a range of peers while seeking acceptance and relationships of their own and pursuing their particular interests and goals).

The NAS further argues that the very rigidity of adherence to rules and routines would decrease the probability of law-breaking ... (although, again, one might ponder whether any literalness about rules, and a kind of tunnel-vision, may cause some interpersonal conflicts and increase the risk of misunderstanding, anxiety, and reactive aggression).

The present authors (Allen et al) highlight the continuing inconsistency of findings concerning whether offending is more or less prevalent in an Aspergers population than in the general population, complicated by methodological differences between studies in terms, for example, of criteria for the diagnosis of Aspergers among target samples and for defining the offending behaviors.

Prevalence of offending appears lower in an Aspergers population than in the general population when a whole range of types of offense is considered; but higher in respect of aggressive behavior such as criminal damage (perhaps attributable to reactions to perceived victimization).

However, while offending may be a relatively low-frequency phenomenon among people with Aspergers, it seems likely that those who do offend will experience marked difficulties with the subsequent judicial processes, starting with the arrest, any element of restraint, and with the questioning.

Problems are likely in their remembering the sequences and timing of events or in over-compliance to suggested interpretations of events; and their apparent competence in (expressive) language may mask their particular vulnerabilities and anxieties.

The implications include ensuring that staff working in the criminal justice system are aware of the nature of Aspergers and ASD generally, and of the particular profile of strengths and weaknesses in given people; that language used in investigating events is kept simple and unambiguous; that approaches are not threatening; and that the person is supported by a familiar person who has experience of working in the field of autism.

Allen et al conclude by making a plea for ongoing research to study truly representative samples of people with Aspergers rather than those already involved with the judicial system in order to identify the similarities and differences between people with Aspergers and controls in respect of the risk for offending; and to explore further the factors which differentiate offenders from non-offenders within the overall Aspergers population.

It was noted by Allen et al (op.cit) that any association that may be perceived, rightly or wrongly, between Aspergers and offending will have been influenced by the dramatic or even sensational way in which certain cases have been reported in the media.

A recent example concerned an 18 year old, diagnosed with Aspergers and experiencing the characteristic social and communication weaknesses (and, reportedly, associated bullying), who, during a party which had been particularly daunting for him, responded to the teasing from a 10 year old girl by attacking her with fatal consequences.

The young man was convicted, and, when sentencing him to a long prison term, the judge referred to the Aspergers condition and his uncertainty whether the disturbance of personality could be traced to the Aspergers, but justified the sentence by describing the young man as presenting considerable danger to young girls.

A similar implication of some direct link between autism and violent crime was made in the trial of the man accused of the murder of a TV presenter in 1999, when specialist opinion highlighted a number of diagnosed conditions co-morbid in this man with no way of determining which condition or combination of conditions could be associated with the crime. (The conviction has now been declared unsafe, and a re-trial is to be held.)

The general moral is that the action (or alleged action) of one given person with his or her idiosyncratic profile of strengths and needs, and history of experiences, and which occurs in a particular setting and involves a particular set of circumstances, should not be regarded as typical of all the people who share a diagnostic label, especially one associated with a spectrum condition.

The further moral appears to involve an early recognition of the condition, and the precise nature of the behavioral profile and symptoms, with a view to increasing awareness of the needs and strengths on the part of extended family, peers, and relevant others, thus to minimize situations likely to evoke fight or flight reactions.

In a conference presentation, Allen et al (2006) provided a summary of their general themes. First, they set out the possible predisposing factors among people with Aspergers that could increase the probability of offending:
  • Anxiety or even panic reactions which may be translated into aggressive actions
  • Impulsiveness (perhaps linked to co morbid ADHD)
  • Lack of awareness of likely outcomes, hence a willingness to initiate outcomes with unforeseen consequences
  • Misunderstanding of social and interactional conventions or rules
  • Naïve social awareness and misinterpretation of relationships leading to exploitation
  • Obsessions and preoccupations
  • Resistance to changing behavior
  • The lack of empathy, or lack of insight into the effects of behavior; a denial of their own responsibility

They go on to cite supportive evidence from other researchers to highlight this kind of commonality across cases, with deficient empathy typically seen as the most significant factor.

While noting the relatively few people with Aspergers identified among those of their sample known to have committed offenses, they listed the commonly-cited precipitating events, as described by their sample of adults with Aspergers, for the aggressive or destructive or otherwise offending actions.

The percentage of respondents referring to particular circumstances was as follows:
  • Bereavement 13%
  • Bullying 50%
  • Change in the support arrangements 19%
  • Change of domicile 25%
  • Family conflict 50%
  • Onset of additional mental health problems 31%
  • Sexual rejection 50%
  • Social rejection 69%

The point emphasized by these authors was that, in their survey covering a very large number of people, the actual incidence of crime among people identified with Aspergers was low. On the basis of this kind of empirical evidence, the team held that there is little support for any hypothesized association between Aspergers and criminal activity.

This is not to belittle the impact of the offenses that are committed, but the implication concerns how to interpret the actions. It is accepted that some of the behaviors associated with Aspergers reflect a lack of communication, or misunderstandings, coupled with an inability to predict the outcomes; but whether the offending actions should be interpreted as having a knowing and criminal intent is questionable, with implications for determining how judicial and mental health systems should best respond in safeguarding the interests both of the person and of the community.

In a commentary on the presentation, Dr Tony Attwood held that it is important that such findings are given publicity in order to counter any view among the general public that Aspergers is a direct and common cause of anti-social or threatening behavior.

Attwood shares the concern lest high profile cases where the central figure is identified with Aspergers (or is believed, or claims, to be so-identified) will reinforce a false assumption that anyone validly diagnosed with Aspergers may commit similar actions.

This concern is justified given the reports in the national press (e.g. Bright 2005) that kids and adolescents with developmental or psychological difficulties, including Aspergers, are being unreasonably targeted for anti-social behavior orders (ASBOs).

The examples, identified by the British Institute for Brain Injured Kids, are given of a 15 year old boy with Aspergers given an ASBO to counter his tendency to stare over the neighbors’ fence into their garden; and of another 15 year old boy identified with Tourettes given an ASBO seeking to stop his swearing in public!

In a further case, an ASBO was served upon a 13 year old girl with Aspergers who had been swearing in the street (and where it turned out that there had been an angry altercation between her parents and the neighbors and she had been copying the language used).

The concept of “zero tolerance” has been identified by staff at the institute as problematic if it is taken literally and involves unreasonable demands upon some kids and teenagers.

The NAS has taken a similar line in expressing concern that the definition of anti-social behavior is too vague. In particular, it is held that “behavior which causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm, or distress” could describe some of the core symptomatic behaviors of many people with autism.

One NAS initiative has involved a pilot program in a number of UK schools to help teenagers with Aspergers to become aware of the risk of crime and associated issues, given that their social and communicative vulnerability will increase the risk of their being placed in dangerous situations.

The program is seeking to enhance social awareness in the target group and to enable them to remain safe from exploitation or from (unwitting) involvement in offending activities.

One common area of potential offending is with the use of computers.

Aspergers is not a specific risk factor for hacking activities, but there has long been the concern (as expressed, among others, by Temple Grandin) that many people with ASD and Aspergers are drawn to computer-based learning or recreation, and to jobs which utilize IT interests and skills, so that, without monitoring and mentoring, there is a risk of a drift into hacking activities.

It may well be, again, that there is no criminal intent but that the people who are identified as hacking into the systems of large organizations are motivated by the presenting challenge to their computing skills.

There are no hard data concerning the actual incidence of this computer crime among people with Aspergers or ASD, but a small number of publicized cases may have allowed there to develop a belief (which may or may not be true) that such actions are more common among people with Aspergers than among the general population.

Therefore, while seeking to avoid inappropriate stereotyping, one might still recognize (as noted by Baron-Cohen 2001 among others) the overlap of traits of people with Aspergers and of people prone to computer hacking. However, Baron-Cohen stresses that any link can only be speculative in the absence of any actual research evidence.

Meanwhile, Szatmari is quoted in the same 2001 publication as dismissing any such link arguing, instead, that people with Aspergers tend to stick to rules and routines almost to a fault.

However, it is possible that, in addition to the “abstract” intellectual challenge involved, there may be some instances where the hacking is motivated by a sense of injustice or by a claimed quest to identify poor security.

Whether this kind of action is more common among the Aspergers population remains subject to debate; and, presumably, there remains the possibility that it is more identified but not more prevalent among the Aspergers group given their likely frankness or lack of concealment about what they are doing.

Finally, one can refer to the work of Bowen and Plimley (2007) who accept that people with ASD can be particularly vulnerable to becoming either victims or perpetrators of offending actions.

They, too, highlight the characteristic problems with social communication and interaction, inflexibility, etc, which can lead to a misunderstanding of their actions and reactions (including on the part of staff in the judicial system).

The implication is not that people with ASD are more likely to commit some offense, but that they need help to stay safe and to avoid actions which were not motivated by a criminal intent but which may be interpreted in that way.

These authors go on to cite the comments of teachers experienced in working with teenagers with ASD to the effect that behaviors accepted and tolerated in childhood, such as outbursts of temper, pushing into people, touching, expressing highly personal comments or questions, etc, are not tolerated and may be interpreted very negatively during adolescence and into adulthood.

It may also be the case that the teenagers can present as confrontational or provocative (which, presumably, may be the starting point for an escalation of behavior into more overtly aggressive interchanges); and they may also be persuaded into delinquent acts, such as petty theft or damage to property, by peers.

Their interviews with those teenagers who had experience of involvement with the police revealed the probability of mutual misunderstandings as a result of some or any of the characteristic aloofness, or apparent rudeness and insensitivity, or literalness, etc.

Bowen and Plimley recommend providing people with ASD some kind of identity card describing the presence and nature of the condition and presenting symptoms.

This concept was described as being supported by their sample of teenagers (and their parents) who felt that behaviors could be open to misinterpretation as deliberately provocative or dangerous or offensive when the real issues concerned communication problems, a lack of recognition of consequences, and stress in the face of uncertain or challenging situations leading to apparently aggressive actions.

Social stories are also recommended as a means of teaching the people concerned about how to avoid those behaviors open to misinterpretation, such as being able to differentiate appropriate and inappropriate touching, social rules, road safety etc.

Further, the advice is for identifying “triggers”, i.e. those events or experiences giving rise to idiosyncratic but negative reactions which may be perceived as deliberately provocative or aggressive acts.

One might summarize much of the implication from the studies reviewed as a matter of seeking fully to understand what lies behind and motivates the observable behavior. If triggers are operating, one needs to be clear what they are ... seeking to gain the perception and to tap the experience of the people concerned as opposed to maintaining one’s own untested hypotheses about the sequence of events.

This could be summarized as ensuring a functional assessment of behavior ... the precise antecedents, the intended purpose, the payback, etc ... with a view either to averting those circumstances which evoke the inappropriate behaviors or to identifying acceptable means of achieving the desired outcome.

Once more, the need is for identification of the needs as early as practicable in order that the particular “style” of the person can be observed and increasingly appreciated over time with the opportunity to introduce strategies to reduce maladaptive behaviors and reactions, and generally to increase appropriate day-to- day social functioning.

Further, despite the high incidence of diagnosed cases of Aspergers and ASD, it appears that the nature of these conditions remains unclear or confused among significant numbers either of the public, typically-developing peers, or of professionals whose role may bring them into frequent contact with teenagers.

The need is for ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the nature of Aspergers and ASD, and the range of permutations of symptoms that may be observed among the persons so-identified, thus to increase an understanding of the needs and an avoidance of misinterpretations leading to inappropriate judicial disposals which may serve only to compound the needs.


Allen D., Peckett H., Evans C., Hider A., Rees H., Hawkins S., and Morgan H. 2007 Asperger Syndrome and the criminal justice system. Good Autism Practice 8(1) 35- 42

Allen D., Evans C., Hider A., and Peckett H. 2006 Asperger Syndrome and offending behaviour : exploring the links. Conference presentation - Autism Cymru, Cardiff. May 2006

Asperger H. 1944 Die Autistichen Psychpathen in Kindersalter. Archiv fur Psychiatrie und Nevrenkrankenheiten 117 76-136

Baron-Cohen S. and Wheelwright S. 2004 The empathy quotient. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 34(2) 163-175

Baron-Cohen S. 2001 Cited in Zuckerman M. Hacker reminds some of Asperger Syndrome. USA Today 29/3.01

Bowen M. and Plimley L. 2007 Keeping out of trouble. Special (July) 31-33

Bright M. 2005 Charity pleads for tolerance as autistic youngsters face ASBOs.

Debbaudt D. 2002 Autism, Advocates, and Law Enforcement Professionals. London : Kingsley

Haskins B. and Silva A. 2006 Asperger’s disorder and criminal behaviour. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 34(3) 374-384

Howlin P. 2004 Autism and Asperger Syndrome : Preparing for Adulthood. New York : Routledge

National Autistic Society 2004 Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Involvement in the Criminal Justice System. London : NAS

Satzmari P. 2001 (Also cited by Zuckerman M. op.cit)

Tantam D. 2003 The challenge of adolescents and adults with Asperger Syndrome. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 12 143-163

The Observer (Home Affairs) : May 22nd 2005 



Anonymous said... So sad how a lot is misunderstood. Police killed a young man w/ Aspergers because someone called in a domestic dispute and he was holding a knife. So instead of using different measures or even finding out that he didn't understand, a man is dead. This happened in Florida, first week of June. So sad.

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