To the multitude who have arrived at this post by searching for “autism and violence” in the wake of the mass shooting in the USA: Nothing in this post is relevant to those types of events. The sorts of people discussed in this post are the lower functioning autistic people who get frustrated from inability to communicate at all and who react suddenly and in an unplanned manner to painful sensory input. It is nothing to do with premeditated mass violence which couldn’t be conceived of – let alone carried out – by the people talked about in this post. The post of mine that you should be reading about autism and mass murder, is here: https://autismandoughtisms.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/autism-the-wrong-answer-to-the-question-of-mass-murder/
It is not hard to understand why autism and violence often come hand-in-hand, most especially for those at the more severe end of the autism spectrum. But how the family, carers, and the public react to and make sense of the relationship between violence and autism, is often highly emotive and confused; at times causing further and avoidable upset in an already highly-charged situation.
I want to begin my discussion with a brief introduction to some of the more obvious reasons for violence occurring quite often among autistic people; particularly the severely autistic and children. Violence is an understandable reaction to the frustration, confusion and anger that arises from difficulty in understanding others and making others understand you, as well as been a raw method of communication in itself in the face of a lack of other methods to make feelings and thoughts known. Violence is also a defensive reaction against excessive sensory input, particularly so when the result of the excessive input is akin to pain. Trying to discipline an autistic child to teach the inappropriateness of violence as a response in such situations, is also notoriously difficult, and can end up making things worse if not done well as it can lead to further anxieties and confusion.
I’ve written a previous post about the relationship (and non-relationship) between autism and bad parenting. I have also done a post generally about the issues surrounding discipline with our autistic children, so I won’t repeat those views here. I would recommend reading them though if you want further background on the views I share in this post. What I specifically want to address in this post is the rhetoric that jumps out when these stories about autism and violence hit the media, as they so often do. Often the story at issue is about the disruptive violent autistic child in a mainstream classroom, and who’s to blame and what’s happened because of it. There are also plenty of stories about (often adult) autistic children hurting their parents in ways that require police involvement; those stories rarely end well.
I’ve watched the discussions that follow these stories, and they seem to follow a pattern of sorts: A public outcry that autism is being used as an excuse for violence, when “really” it’s just bad parenting or bad personal decisions on behalf of the autistic person (this rhetoric often comes hand-in-hand with claims that autism isn’t a real condition, or that it is a real condition but that it is caused only by poor discipline etc).
The parent inevitably defends their child – on the same forums as the public or in the news article itself – but that defense by the parent can take various forms. It usually takes the form of what I will term “excuse.” By which I mean, that the autism excuses the violence in such a way that the child (or adult) is not to blame for the violence and therefore should not be punished for it; that the autism itself is the cause, and you can’t punish “autism”, so the correct response should be compassion and understanding.
An alternative rhetoric from parents, and one I’ve encountered many times from rather extremist carers of autistic children, is the notion that autism is not just an excuse for the violence, it is a justification for the violence. Let me explain that further because I think it is a vital point that is often confused together with “excuse” (discussed above) and “explanation” (which I will expand on soon).
The “justification” response is one that blames the person who has been hurt by the violence, usually attacking them for their ignorance. For example, that they have performed an action, used words, or exposed the autistic person to something that would be benign to the vast majority of the population, but which was excruciating or particularly upsetting to that specific autistic individual (and possibly to most autistic individuals). The upshot being that if the person who was hurt (the teacher, the carer, the parent, the police), had been more aware and made the effort to understand the autistic individual better, the violence would have never occurred. Whereby the victim of the violence, is relabeled as the perpetrator who got what they deserved; making the autistic person the true victim of the situation.
This reaction (quite understandably) leads to out-rage from the general public and at times incredulity on behalf of the person who suffered the violence. Thereby escalating the situation and negative attitudes – even fear – towards autistic people.
An alternative to the excuse or justification rhetoric, and in fact the basis of both before they become either excuse or justification, is “explanation.” This is the approach that says the violence is predictable or understandable in light of the autism, but stops short of making a claim about the moral blameworthiness of the autistic individual or the person who suffered the violence. It says: “autism, not bad parenting or ill-intent, has caused this violence to occur, and here is why…” Many times the “here is why” bit is left under-explained, which just feeds the public’s fear and confusion about autism.
Being able to explain why the autism has led to violence in that instance, fosters understanding, and potentially builds a path towards finding a way forward for that individual, and perhaps for all autistic people. For example, if sensory overload and lack of alternative means of communication are causing violence in a classroom, using autism as an excuse or justification for the violence does not fix the problem itself (and under more extreme uses of the excuse and justification rhetoric, can make things a lot worse for that individual and other autistic people). But explanation may suggest changing the classroom environment and new methods of communication ( PECS for example) as ways forward; acknowledging that violence is not acceptable, but that when we know why it occurs, we are better equipped to stop it reoccurring, or at the very least, better equipped to see it about to happen and take action to manage it before it gets out of hand.
Even though the excuse and justification approaches often come with words like “I don’t think violence is acceptable”, the rest of the message can make it look like the person doing the defending thinks violence is acceptable in those instances (rather than merely understandable). Clearly, this “violence is OK in these circumstances” line is going to occur more often in the justification rhetoric; in much the same way that we as a society say violence is unacceptable, but is OK in self-defence, when we talk about the legal justification of self-defence. In the same way, the autistic individual is the victim, not the true perpetrator, and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.
It should be pretty obvious by now, that I do not put much stock in the “justification” rhetoric when it comes to autism and violence in these sorts of situations (which I’ll say more about soon). I think we must always be careful to look situation to situation when it comes to the question of excuse; sometimes autism really is the reason for the violence and sometimes individual choice and / or bad influences and bad parenting, will be the decisive factors. That is to say, sometimes autism really should be seen as a sort of excuse, and sometimes it really isn’t. Telling the difference won’t always be straightforward, but an attempt to identify when the difference occurs is absolutely vital to figuring out the best and correct response to the situation as it has already occurred, and to its potential to re-occur.
I want to briefly mention a particular instance of when I think we can legitimately use the “justification” rhetoric for autism; but it is rare and is not the sort of situation normally found in these situations when they go public or get bandied about in forums. The times that “justification” in regards to autism and violence makes sense, is going to be where someone who genuinely should have known better, did or said something that predictably upset or disturbed the autistic individual to the point of violence. For example, someone very familiar with the individual and with autism as a condition, doing something that wouldn’t upset joe-average, but is a known trigger or breaking-point for the autistic individual. These would be those instances of intentional cruelty or indifference, that mirror the sort of issues that lead us to say violence in self-defence (under otherwise normal situations) is also justifiable.
Again though, for even this approach to hold weight you’d have to take into account the exact situation and individual; if the autistic person is an adult and quite high-functioning (for lack of a better phrase) and didn’t lose control so much as got very annoyed or upset and lashed out, “justification” isn’t really the appropriate term. Anymore than a highly strung person being provoked by someone who knows just what to say to upset them, will justify a violent response. It would become a real question of self-control (did the autism over-rule any individual controlled choice to use violence, for stance).
(Those familiar with the law will see this part of my discussion coming close to questions of provocation and issues generally of mens rea; I am borrowing from the law to organise my thoughts, but I’m not trying to tie this discussion too tightly to how the law would view it, at least not without further consideration. This post is early thoughts, rather than refined and strongly developed ones.)
The point of this post was to attempt to label and discuss in an introductory sense, those different types of rhetorics when people generally talk about the relationship between autism and violence. Whether I have done an adequate job of that, I leave to you to let me know; I would be very interested to hear your own views.