Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

Autism Spectrum Disorder or Antisocial Personality?

Some superficial similarities in behavior but totally different entities

In the aftermath of mass shootings, mental health professionals and the public at large endeavor to understand the personality of the perpetrators.  In some instances, commentators, including highly trained professionals, have conjectured that a form of autism played a role.  Recently, Elliot Rodgers shot six University of California (Santa Barbara) students and injured thirteen bystanders, then killed himself.  Because Mr. Rodgers seemed to have a deficit of understanding of people and lacked a connection to them, he was said to have suffered from “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I am not commenting here specifically about Mr. Rodgers.  However, I would point out that individuals with an antisocial personality disorder also lack a connection to people but this is not due to autism.  Aspects of their behavior may superficially resemble autism.  For example:

  • They do not “read” other people well largely because they are completely self-centered.
  • They lack empathy and do not have an operational concept of injury to others.
  • Their thinking is concrete (they fail to see common elements in different situations).
  • Some appear to be “loners” but this is frequently because they set themselves apart from others and disparage them while regarding themselves as superior and unique.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (5th edition), “Autism Spectrum Disorders” are characterized by “impairments in communication and social interaction,” by deficits in “social-emotional reciprocity,” and by “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.”  The DSM notes, “Only a minority of individuals with autism spectrum disorder live and work independently in adulthood.”

People with an antisocial disorder usually are very independent.  They regard depending on others as weak, unless they seek to exploit them for their own purposes.  Their social interactions are problem-ridden because they constantly strive to build themselves up at the expense of others.  They are often shunned because others fear them.  They are loners because love, trust, and friendship are antithetical to their way of life.  They operate in a single-minded fashion, employing any means to fulfill their self-serving objectives.

It is a disservice to the autism community to link cold-blooded killings with some form of autism.  Most autistic people, whatever their limitations, are responsible and do not behave violently toward others.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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