Helen M Farrell M.D.

Frontpage Forensics

Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's and Violence: The Blame Game

Pinning Violence on Asperger’s is Unfair

Posted May 29, 2014

Elliot Rodger, a troubled young man at 22-years-old, shot and killed several UC Santa Barbara students and injured more bystanders before reportedly shooting himself. This is a terrible tragedy and my sympathies go out to the victims, their families, and Roger’s family. This event, however, has done more than strike the nation with grief and sadness.

Similar to what happened after the Sandy Hook shootings, mental illness is being highlighted in a negative media light because Rodger allegedly had Asperger’s syndrome.

After violent acts like this it is natural for people to want explanations and to place blame. Rationalizing the horrific actions of others can somehow make them easier for us to digest. This is why Rodger’s YouTube page of strange and bizarre videos is being scrutinized by millions of people. They are looking for insights into this man’s psyche and the headline news have repeatedly alluded to Asperger’s syndrome being the ultimate clue for this rampage.

We know little about Rodger, and I certainly never evaluated nor treated him. I do know about Asperger’s syndrome. In fact, psychologists and psychiatrists agree that people with autism or Asperger’s are not more likely to commit violent crimes than members of the general population.

Asperger’s syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) considered to be on the “high functioning” end of the spectrum. Affected children and adults have difficulty with social interactions and exhibit a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviors. Motor development may be delayed, leading to clumsiness or uncoordinated motor movements. Compared with those affected by other forms of ASD, however, those with Asperger syndrome do not have significant delays or difficulties in language or cognitive development. Some even demonstrate precocious vocabulary – often in a highly specialized field of interest.

While there are times when people with mental illnesses commit violent acts, this is the exception and not the norm.  They are most commonly the victims and not the perpetrators of crime. That Rodger may or may not have been on the autistic spectrum is nothing more than a fact - like the color of his eyes. It is not a risk factor for violence.

Misunderstanding mental illness introduces potential for misplaced fear. Perpetuating discrimination and stigma does nothing more than halt progress toward health.

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