Autism & Aggressive Behavior

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

Autism is a relatively common developmental condition. However, autistic individuals may often be misunderstood or stigmatized. This lesson discusses autism and its perceived connection to aggressive behavior.

Stereotypes About Autism

Often, when dealing with people with mental or developmental illnesses, it is easy to misunderstand them. People with these conditions are sometimes stereotyped as being aggressive, violent, or 'insane'. In the case of autism, people can violate boundaries in such a way that the individual panics and lashes out. News stories frequently associate autism with aggressive and violent behavior. But is autism actually associated with aggression?

Characteristics of Autism

Autism is a condition that affects as many as 1 in 68 Americans, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. Rather than a single set of symptoms, the term autism represents a spectrum of disorders (formally diagnosed as ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorders) involving how people process information. Symptoms falling on the autistic spectrum can range from minor conceptual issues to more serious difficulties in using verbal (spoken) communication. Many individuals with autism can lead relatively normal lives once they have a chance to learn in their own way and manage their symptoms. People at the other end of the spectrum may need some sort of assisted living or supervised care for the rest of their lives.

People on the autistic spectrum process information differently than those without the disorder. These people can become overwhelmed by too much sensory input, in particular if the input comes from being touched or via some other uncommon sensation. People with autism tend to have problems understanding social situations and nonverbal communication like body language and gestures. This can make it difficult for the individual with ASD to determine the exact context of things that are going on around them. Other symptoms may include physical difficulties with digestion and interests that may border on the obsessive.

Let's look at an example. Jeremy is a 12-year-old boy who has been diagnosed with ASD. Jeremy's condition falls on the more functional side of the spectrum. As such, he is allowed to attend regular classes with kids his own age. Jeremy's teachers and classmates are aware, however, that Jeremy has special needs. For instance, everyone knows not to touch Jeremy without his express consent beforehand. He may misinterpret a hug or even a playful swat on the shoulder and panic because he feels threatened. During mandatory films, when the lights are darkened and a movie is projected on the screen at the front of the class, Jeremy is allowed to step outside the classroom because the visual input from the screen may to be too intense for him. Lastly, everyone understands that Jeremy has problems with nonverbal behavioral cues, and cannot tell when someone is joking just because of the tone of their voice.

Aggression or Panic?

Just as most people understandably panic on occasion, autistic individuals do the same thing. Because autism can make the world a confusing place, individuals with ASD may take their panic to extremes and lash out physically. This is less a matter of aggression, however, than a reaction to internal emotions or external events (i.e. physical sensations). Aggression is generally understood to be a readiness to attack or confront another person. Aggression is an active behavior, rather than a reactive one. However, people with autism rarely target or confront other individuals in the same manner a non-autistic person would. Indeed, due to awkwardness in social situations, autistic individuals often keep to themselves, displaying none of the social agency implied by the term aggressive.

If one person grabs another on the shoulder, and the second person shoves the first, we may or may not perceive that the individuals are being aggressive. Some contextual clues as to the nature of the interaction involve basic questions. Was the first person grabbing the second roughly? Had they exchanged angry words or threats? Was the shove violent or playful? These questions are all matters of context. However, a person like Jeremy finds it difficult to understand and process all of these contextual issues. Typically, if someone grabs Jeremy's shoulder, he can overreact in a way that others might consider out of proportion to the situation. Jeremy may scream, flail his limbs, or even strike at the other person. At the same time, if Jeremy observed a pair of friends playfully grabbing and swatting each other, he would simply observe that person A grabbed person B, who then shoved person A away.

Autism and Criminal Behavior

There are instances of people with ASD committing criminal acts. Some involve physical violence against people, while others include destruction of property. This is not, however, the norm for autistic individuals. Many incidents can be traced to the previously described panic and inability to formulate socially acceptable responses. In some cases, autism may be linked to the factors that contribute to the criminal behavior.

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