Daily Mail – On May 21 the Daily Mail published an article entitled, “Recipe for a serial killer? Childhood abuse, autism and head injuries are more common in murderers, study claims” in which the article by Victoria Woollaston states:
“Serial killers are portrayed as cold, calculating and often obsessive but it was unknown exactly what caused them to commit such heinous crimes.
Now research from Glasgow has found that these similar traits among different murderers may be linked to specific psychological disorders and childhood trauma.
Researchers from Glasgow have conducted the first ever analysis of journals, news reports and legal files involved in the cases of killers, including Anders Breivik and Dr Harold Shipman.
“They discovered a link between suffering a combination of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a head injury and a psychosocial disorder, such as that caused by exposure to abuse in childhood or parental divorce.”
The article is based loosely on the research findings from Clare S. Allelya et al, entitled, Neurodevelopmental and psychosocial risk factors in serial killers and mass murderers that can be read here
This article has both angered and upset many individuals and organizations within the autism community and Autism Daily Newscast reached out for comments and opinions.
Ambitious about Autism Chief Executive, Jolanta Lasota commented that:
“The authors of this report state that their research is ‘clearly limited’ by the ‘anecdotal and ‘speculative nature’ of some of the published accounts that were used. And yet the headlines that it has generated may still encourage people to make sweeping and inaccurate judgements about the 1 in 100 people in the UK with autism”.
Carol Povey, Director of The National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism,(NAS) said:
“This is a very serious issue and research like this is vital if we are to develop preventive strategies.
“But we would urge people not to jump to conclusions about people with autism and to make judgements about a whole section of society.
“This and previous research shows that the vast majority of individuals with autism are law abiding and respect the rules of society. Indeed, in many cases, individuals with autism are unusually concerned to keep the letter of the law, due to the nature of the disability.
“This research reaffirms the importance of ensuring that people with autism get the support they need as early as possible.”
Anna Kennedy OBE of Anna Kennedy Online who is an autism campaigner and advocate was both outraged and upset over the Daily Mail’s article and she told us:
“I would like to make a personal plea to stop stigmatizing people with autism with articles such as these. Its hard enough as it is being a parent of a child on the spectrum where you are trying to protect them in parallel with raising awareness with family, friends and adults in their life about their difficulties and possible behaviours. Then as they grow to be an adult on the spectrum who then are trying to get through the day to day tasks like the rest of us with the least stress possible with their added difficulties.
“Articles like these undo all the good work of our charity and people myself who are trying to raise awareness about the condition and share positive achievements of these individuals.There are too many doom and gloom articles around about autism and the aforementioned article is no different and adds to the stresses of families living with the condition. I asked my husband Sean what he thought and his response ‘Any incident must be interpreted on its facts and a full account must be given to persons disability and how this may have affected matters. Do not prejudge events or draw any conclusions without full consideration of evidence!!”
Emily Willingham who writes articles for Forbes has commented on this topic many times and her latest article, “No, Timothy McVeigh Was Not Autistic” states:
“I’ve seen some recklessness in my wanderings through the world of autism science, but these authors reach depths I cannot fathom. If you doubt that, let me just point out that they use the Daily Mail as one of their citations to demonstrate that a killer not diagnosed with autism might have it and cite an author who very much wants to make up a diagnostic category called “Criminal Autistic Psychopathy” as a subset of Asperger’s. Which no longer exists.”
Emily then goes on to add:
“It is inappropriate for anyone–much less these authors, giving the imprimatur of science and peer review–to diagnose from a distance someone they have never even met and with whose case they are not deeply familiar. Add to that their conflation of mass murderers and serial killers, whose psychic motivations can be very different, and this entire paper is one big, hot, irresponsible mess. One that, I’ll add, is quite opaque on the criteria they used to diagnose these killers as “highly probable” or “possible” for having an autism spectrum disorder and at one point elides it completely by referencing “evidence of ASD traits.”
“Everyone shares autism traits–autistic people aren’t Martians with an entirely separate set of nonhuman behaviors. That doesn’t make everyone autistic, including people who might have overlapping traits and commit terrible acts. And autistic people who do commit terrible acts are no more representative of autism than are the men who commit such acts representative of men in general.”
Headlines and stories such as these will always generate an outpouring of emotion from both individuals on the autistic spectrum and those who care for them. This is not the first time this kind of report has shown up. Our reporter, Dr. Rachita Narsaria wrote an opinion piece last fall criticizing poor science. We will keep you updated on any new developments.