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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Violence and Autism

In The Politics of Autism, I write:
There is no evidence linking autism to planned violence, but in recent years, mass shootings by young men have led commentators in the mainstream media and on the Internet to suggest such a connection. After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, for instance, news reports said that the shooter was on the spectrum. The speculation made little sense to anyone who understood autism. Whereas autistic people have language delays and deficits, the killer had learned English as a second language — and learned it well enough to major in the subject in college. Later on, it turned out that he had an entirely different problem, a social anxiety disorder. Adam Lanza, who committed the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, may have had an Asperger’s diagnosis, but his father emphasized that his behavior stemmed from the psychiatric illnesses that he also had. Nevertheless, the media speculated about Lanza’s place on the spectrum, which worried autism parents. One mother of an autistic child wrote: “This is the first time I'm truly afraid for him. Afraid of what may happen to my son with autism at the hands of a stranger; a stranger who has chosen to buy into the media-fueled misinformation that individuals diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are dangerous and capable of horrendous acts of terror and violence.”
Reports the man connected to Monday’s van rampage on Yonge St. may suffer from Asperger syndrome, have shaken advocates in Ontario’s autism community.
Asperger syndrome has been associated with autism spectrum disorder, a complex neuro-biological disorder that affects the ability to verbalize thoughts, manage anxiety, cope with changes to routine and participate in unstructured social situations. Symptoms also include repetitive behaviours and fixations.
But violent behaviour is not typically associated with the disorder, said Margaret Spoelstra executive director of Autism Ontario.
“Autism and mental health (problems) are not synonymous. Autism is a neuro-biological disorder. But it is not about violence,” she said Tuesday. “Autism is not the reason someone gets behind the wheel of a van and plows through a crowd of people.”
Alek Minassian, 25, of Richmond Hill, is alleged to have been behind the wheel of a white rental van that struck pedestrians at Yonge St. and Finch Ave. He is facing charges in the deaths of 10 people, and attempted murder charges for 13 others who were injured.

In 2009, the Richmond Hill Liberal quoted Minassian’s mother Sona in a story about the loss of Helpmate, a local social service organization that helped her son, who she said has Asperger syndrome. The story did not name the son.