Asperger’s is an unlikely cause for California killer’s violence

Elliot Rodger’s behaviour points to other problems. Michael Nelson/EPA

The news that Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old confirmed by police as a suspect in the violent rampage which left seven people dead and 13 injured in Isla Vista, southern California, had Asperger’s Disorder – a form of autism – has raised questions about whether the condition was a factor in the man’s horrific actions.

Adam Lanza, the man responsible for the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 26 people, including 20 school children, dead in December of 2012 had also been diagnosed with Asperger’s. And in times of tragedy like these, it’s natural to want answers for how such senseless, horrendous acts could happen. It’s also reasonable to question whether Asperger’s was a factor in the violent actions of the two men. Yet, most experts will tell you that people with Asperger’s are rule followers, not rule breakers.

While those on the autism spectrum may not come hardwired with the same levels of social understanding as people without the syndrome, and can be involved in some crime, there is no proven connection between the diagnosis and violent behaviour.

Adam Lanza. USA Today
Just like anyone else, those with Asperger’s can have other mental health problems, which could lead to violent behaviour. In Lanza’s case, a final report on the shooting said he had significant mental health issues and Lanza’s father also said it wasn’t Asperger’s that led his son to mass murder.

Reports suggest that Rodger was also dealing with other mental health issues but without an evaluation of his mental health history, which will surely be a part of the investigation, efforts to analyse these would be speculative. At the same time, anyone who listened to his YouTube diatribes might easily recognise the paranoid thinking and persecutory themes of the alleged gunman, strongly suggesting the presence of mental unbalance. It remains to be seen whether any more could have been done by mental health services and health professionals as Bill Brown, the Santa Barbara county sheriff, suggested after previous concerns were raised about Rodger’s behaviour.

Asperger’s is not a form of mental illness – it’s a developmental disorder that impacts a person’s ability to communicate socially and engage in close, meaningful relationships. It can lead to those affected having a difficult time with traditional social skills, like making and keeping friends or having romantic relationships – complaints expressed repeatedly by Rodger in his 140-page manifesto.

Those with Asperger’s may also be more prone to bullying and victimisation, particularly during adolescence. Yet, simply having a diagnosis of Asperger’s, and even struggling with peer rejection, would not be a sufficient cause or explanation for acting out in an aggressive way towards others. It’s more likely that significant mental health problems were at the root of these perplexing and terrible acts.

While on the surface it might seem easy to try to blame the violent behaviours of the shooting sprees in California and Connecticut on Asperger’s, it would simply be wrong. The face of Asperger’s is not the face of violence, and to make such a connection would be a misguided effort to find a simple explanation for these two horrifying incidents.