Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.
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.
For instance, let's look at a situation reflecting the reality of our criminal justice system intersecting with developmentally disadvantaged individuals. Let's say Jeremy has just been chastised for a poor test grade by a teacher. Not knowing how to appropriately respond to criticism, he kicks over trash cans near the school. This is technically vandalism if there is property damage. Upon observing this behavior, the school's resource officer (a full-fledged police officer) tells Jeremy to stop. He doesn't, so the resource officer grabs him by the shoulder.The officer doesn't know that this is seen as threatening. Jeremy lashes out and panics, striking the officer several times. Lashing out at a police officer can be considered a criminal act, and Jeremy is now in trouble with the law.
In limited cases, violence and aggression that is not attributable to panic may occur. Here, a variety of other factors likely contribute to a person with ASD committing a crime. Remember, ASD does not occur in a vacuum. The same social, economic, and other factors that influence crime also influence people with autism. In many cases, criminal behavior in autistic individuals is linked to comorbid conditions prevalent in the population. Comorbidity is a term that describes the occurrence of a second chronic condition in a person who already has one chronic condition. In the case of ASD, comorbid conditions might include anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and a number of other mental health conditions. Many of these are thought to increase the likelihood that a person will commit a criminal act. Many people with ASD who commit more serious criminal offenses have these other conditions. It is not yet clear how big of a role each condition plays in these acts.
Autism is a complicated disorder. The vast majority of people with ASD are nonviolent. If placed into a situation where their understanding breaks down, such as being shoved or having to deal with complicated emotions, some autistic individuals may panic and lash out. This cannot be viewed as aggression, however, as most of these incidents are reactions. Unlike acts of aggression, reactions are the result of a passive attitude. Very few people with autism are charged and convicted of criminal offenses. Most of these actions happen as a result of reactivity. In some circumstances, acts that are truly aggressive may happen, but many of these acts can be attributed to comorbid conditions.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack