Skip to main content

Autism link to violence is a myth

By John Elder Robison, Special to CNN
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Sun April 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Robison: Debunk "link" between autism and violence this Autism Awareness Month
  • Robison: Reports that Asperger's sparked Sandy Hook shooter spread prejudice
  • Having Asperger's, he says, and being different is bad enough without that myth
  • We need to stop looking for easy answers and find out what really causes violence, he says

Editor's note: John Elder Robison is the author of three books on autism, including "Raising Cubby," a memoir of being a father with Asperger's raising a son who also has Asperger's. He serves on review boards for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and Autism Speaks and is a member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the Department of Health and Human Services.

(CNN) -- This is Autism Awareness Month, and it's a good time to set the record straight on autism and violence.

After Sandy Hook, there was a lot of talk about whether shooter Adam Lanza had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and, if so, whether that played a role in his violent behavior. The response from people touched by autism and autism professionals was immediate and unequivocal: There is no connection between any autism spectrum disorder and violent aggression.

Unfortunately, stating the facts did little to stop the speculation. It's almost as if people wanted to "make it so" as an easy way to explain the inexplicable. Every new story seemed to mention Asperger's in the headline or opening lines. The implied connection was unmistakable.

John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison

The truth is, people with autism are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Even in our supposedly enlightened society, anyone who is different can become a magnet for bullies and predators. Growing up with undiagnosed Asperger's, I learned that the hard way. So did my son, Jack (I call him Cubby), who also has Asperger's. I'd sensed that all my life, but it's also supported by scientific studies, in both medical and criminal justice research.

Opinion: I have Asperger's and I'm just like you

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Those of us on the autism spectrum have enough problems simply being different in an often intolerant world. Thanks to our limited sense of the emotions swirling around us, we live in the shadow of often unseen threats, as so many of us have learned to our detriment. The unspoken emotional subtext that most people take for granted is mysterious and invisible to us. Our oblivion leads to bad feeling, and we never know exactly how and where we went wrong.

Media talk of Asperger's and murder -- even when it's only speculation -- raises that threat level significantly. Insinuations like this dehumanize people with Asperger's and label us as "sociopaths" or "future attackers." Where does that lead? Exclusion, bullying and mistreatment, even more than before.

Troubling legacy of Sandy Hook may create backlash against kids with autism

Prejudice affects us in many ways, most all of which are bad. My son found that out four years ago, when a state prosecutor decided that his scientific fascination with explosives was a terrorist threat and only she could "save" our community. She charged him with four felonies, carrying a maximum sentence of more than 60 years in prison.

Growing up autistic

Cubby was 17 years old when he was indicted. He'd never been in trouble with either the law or in school, and was on track to make Eagle Scout, where he taught the chemistry merit badge course.

His only "crime" was turning household chemicals into experimental explosives, which he set off and filmed in the woods behind our house. Even the ATF agents who first investigated were impressed by Cubby's scientific acumen and curiosity and certain that he intended no harm.

World Autism Awareness Day
New exercise for adults with autism
Dr. Drew: Shooter's mom was in denial

It took a year of our lives, $100,000 and a weeklong jury trial to set the record straight. At the end the prosecutor just walked away, as do most bullies and predators. Our society can be awful long on prejudgment and woefully short on consequences.

It's time to change the conversation.

Asperger's doesn't make a person a killer or a terrorist. It's the disturbing truth that anyone can turn violent or deadly, and it's proven very difficult to identify who's vulnerable and what the trigger might be.

Opinion: Leave autism out of mass shootings

Psychologist Phil Zimbardo showed that we all have a dark side, one that can emerge quite suddenly, in his famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which was cut off early when students who played prison guards became sadistic and those who played prisoners became depressed.

Indeed, most of the rampage killers of the past 30 years apparently popped up out of nowhere. What did we miss? The central question for us as a society should be: How can we identify those people at risk for aggressive violence, and get them support while help is still an option?

I believe violence should be a research priority at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. After the fact analysis doesn't help anyone, and it won't bring back the dead. We need to understand what makes people turn on others and how we can defuse that threat.

Groups: Autism not to blame for violence

At the same time, we must learn to stop the rush to judgment when the person next to us acts "a little strange." Eccentric people have brought humanity some of its greatest gifts and inventions, and we need to encourage difference, not chase it into hiding.

Imagine where we'd be today if Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, had been prosecuted like my son -- instead of praised for his service to humanity.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Elder Robison.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT