Sunday 25 May 2014

Violent and wrong: Elliot Rodger's crime should not taint my child

Another boy, another gun.

A little later, another photograph.

Brown hair, brown eyes. Slanting cheekbones. A way of tilting the head.

Scrutiny. Debate. Then - aha! He had Asperger's.

The pain of the parents of the children killed by Elliot Rodger is unimaginable. The pain of the parents of Elliot Rodger is unfathomable.

What I can describe is the pain of a another parent, one whose child has Aspergers and who is this morning trying to formulate a response to yet another story in which their child's diagnosis is being held up as an explanation for murder.

While I type this, my daughter is asleep upstairs. It's half-term, and she's tired. Her room is still dark, the curtains closed. I went in earlier to wake her, then changed my mind. She was so fast asleep, so lost in her dreams, that I couldn't bear to disturb her. Instead I stood in the shadows and listened to her soft breathing and to the spring rain pattering on the windows. I looked at her and I thought: my little girl. What will the world make of you now?

I haven't slept. I am indignant, fearful and full of rage - like many others out there adding their voices to this collective shriek of pain. I am in the worst possible state to attempt to present an argument. But when others are shouting such nonsense so loudly, I feel as though I have to try.

For as long as I have known that my daughter was autistic, I have fought against autism stereotypes. My daughter's autism is an essential part of her, but it is not the essence of her. She is sweet and funny and clever and sparky and eccentric and arty .. for so long my biggest frustration was that everyone wanted to label her as Rainman. The number of times Dustin Hoffman's stuttering mathematical genius has been cited in conversations about my daughter's diagnosis is so many I have lost count.

But faced with the conversations I am reading today - the ignorant, block-headed tweets and comments about "kids with Asperger's disease who kill other kids" - I could almost wish back those days of clumsy cliche. They seem so innocent now. That my daughter's diagnosis puts her, in so many lazy, unthinking people's minds, alongside the likes of Rodger and Adam Lanza, who fatally shot twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school, is horrifying.

It's very hard to speak for all people with Asperger's Syndrome. To those denouncing them all this morning as potential mass murderers, I would point out that when you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. However, if I may be allowed one generalisation with which to fight back - most people with Asperger's don't want "revenge against humanity." To say today that all people with Asperger's are potential killers is as reprehensible and wrong-headed as Rodger's own assertion that blonde women were collectively to blame for his unhappiness.

Listen to me. Listen to me.

Autistic people are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

Some people with autism have difficulty understanding other people. But it does not follow to say that every person who has difficulty understanding other people is like that because he or she is autistic.

To say that Elliot Rodger did this because he is on the autism spectrum is like saying Elliot Rodger did this because he was a man, and white.

Autistic people who commit these acts are no more representative of  people with autism than white male serial killers are representative of white males.


As Emily Willingham wrote in her fabulous paper for Forbes earlier this week, the real unifying feature of most mass murderers isn't autism or brain injury, "it's anger and rage, often blasted outward at innocent targets by means of easily accessible firearms."

And in this case, not only is the role played by firearms far more relevant than where Rodger might have been on the spectrum, but - as Jessica Valenti writes in the Guardian today - to dismiss him as a madman also glosses over the role that misogyny and a sexist society played.

I would write more, I would write on and on, but my daughter has just woken up and come down to see me. She is standing in front of me smiling, hair mussed, anticipating a good day. I tell her I love her. She tells me that she loves me back, then goes to cuddle her little sister.

There is a lot to be sifted through and assessed in the Santa Barbara killings. Of all of these things, Asperger's is a detail. It is not a pre-determination.

Grace Under Pressure: Going The Distance as an Asperger's Mum is published by Piatkus in the UK and by New World Library in the U.S.


  1. But, because of social awkwardness that this disease creates some with it feel left out of normal things. It doesn't cause the killings or for that matter the violence, but it sure doesn't help people with the disease fit in either. If you already have a propensity to not feel certain normal emotions and you amplify that with depression and social awkwardness, the results seem very clear. It also doesn't help that media has created a standard of how people are supossed to be if they want to be accepted. Puberty is hard enough without asperger's.

  2. Who said anything about people with Asperger's not feeling certain 'normal' emotions? I think you've just made my case.

  3. Dear John. Asperger's is not a disease. Diseases can be treated or cured. Aspergers is a different way of thinking and perceiving the world. It's being wired for battery power rather than mains electricity.

    And people with Asperger's syndrome definitely do feel emotions just like any other human - indeed, sometimes they feel emotions so strongly it brings them to tears in public. My daughter certainly experiences this. She may struggle to understand why other people do things, but she feels great sympathy for other people's pain.

    People with Asperger's are teased and picked on enough by people with a propensity to not feel consideration for others.

    Please excuse me while I go to hug my beautiful daughter too.

  4. Yes, individuals with autism are STATISTICALLY more likely to be victims of a crime than the perpetrators of one.

    But that does not mean that autistic people NEVER perpetrate violence.

    Mass murderers, mass shooters are vanishingly rare... yet both Elliot Rodger and Adam Lanza (who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School) were both autistic and the perpetrators of HORRIFIC violence.

    Somebody needs to investigate WHY these HORRIBLE EVIL autistic boys decided it'd be fun to commit mass murder.

    Brushing it under the table does not good -- and doesn't protect your precious lil autistic daughter either. You love her so much you cannot see her as potentially dangerous. She's probably not... but could be.

    May Elliot Rodger rot in hell. May somebody investigate why autistic people commit mass murder!

  5. Susan, could I ask you to read the article again. Plus the link to the Forbes article? I don think you've absorbed very much. Also interested to see what you make of the fact that it is now emerging that Rodger's parents have retracted their comments as he wasn't actually diagnosed with autism after all?

  6. I'm really shocked that you believe these things John and Susan. There are many factors that can contribute to people committing violent acts, its not as simple as you describe. Its not as simple as 'horrible evil autistic boys' deciding that its 'fun to commit mass murder' and the fact that you believe that it is this simple really just suggests that you haven't understood the issue very well.

    People with autism are complex and so are neurotypical people just in different ways. Proportionately I think neurotypical people commit more crimes than people with autism.

    If we want to work towards making the world a safer place for everyone we need to try and understand people with autism better as people not just why a tiny minority (like miniscule) of people with autism commit horrific crimes. I've had the pleasure to work with lots of teenagers and young people with autism and genuinely I don't think of them as having autism I just think of them as people I know with skills, senses of humour, passions, quirks etc. No-one is defined by their diagnosis.

    Keep up the good work Sophie and Grace :)

  7. *sigh*

    I have a child with autism. He has a sweet, gentle nature. He sometimes expresses his frustration through self-harm, and sometimes his wrestling matches with his little brother go too far, but he does not have violent tendencies. He clearly loves his little brother, his dad and I. He keeps to himself when among other people, but I do see him demonstrate empathy.

    And yet.

    I have people telling me that someday I may have to "make alternative living arrangements" for him for the protection of my younger son (who, so far, is under no threat whatsoever). I have people assuming that he has unmanageable behavioural difficulties (not true), that he has unmanageable dietary needs (not true) and that he is not capable of emotion (not true).

    I have to fight unbelievably hard to get people to see the beautiful soul that is my child, to look beyond the label. And every time I feel like I've taken a step forward, some idiot in the media goes and portrays people with autism as mass murderers.

    I share your frustration, Sophie. With your permission, I would like to link to this post in a post I am writing about autism stereotypes.

  8. Thank you for speaking out, HGB and K. And K - yes by all means please do go ahead and use this piece in yours. I find it very sad to see such hardened opinions despite all evidence pointing to a different truth. We can only keep on writing and talking and persuading. And hoping. x

  9. You don't 'have' Asperger's. It's a label for a set of behaviors.

    His thought processes were too well organized to associate them with a mental disease. You have instead a typical narcissistic sociopath.

  10. Nice article Soph, good points, well made, and eloquently put as usual. I used some of them today when I was giving some autism training to some criminal justice solicitors.

    It's really surprising what some people actually think. I guess you have to know one of us personally to really understand.

    Debi x

  11. Although to say that individuals with Aspergers are incapable of criminal intent, would be a fallacy. There was a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, "Asperger's Disorder and Criminal Behavior: Forensic-Psychiatric Considerations"

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