Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Autism and Violence

In my last posting, I discussed the deadly crime of Adam Lanza. I discussed that having autism by itself does not indicate a tendency to become homicidal. Anyone who does become a murderer has a list of factors that led to their actions. That's not to condone those actions, rather to show that there is no single factor that makes one a homicidal maniac.

Today I want to talk about violence that does occur with autism and other inhibiting conditions similar to autism. Just like anything, there is a spectrum or scale of violent tendencies that can occur and they are not what you would normally expect.

Involuntary Stress Reactions: Consider a young man heavily affected by autism. He needs assistance in practically every facet of life. In each step of his day, a great deal of patience is required to work with him. If pressed too hard or if someone gets in a hurry, they risk a violent outburst. This could be flailing, kicking, biting, and even throwing things. It comes from severe difficulty relating to the world around them. This is a person who lives under constant stress in trying to function each day. He requires consistency in all things, from how he brushes his teeth to how he puts his shoes on. Everything has a delicate routine and he is so sensitive to it, that the slightest variation risks an overload to his stress limits and senses. With consistent therapy and support, some people's outbursts can be controlled. Some can even learn a limited sense of self control.

Why does this happen: Imagine all your senses and your limitations on stress at their near maximum just because you woke up today. You live on a proverbial balance beam where a hair out of place means a long fall. And that's what it feels like. I feels like your world just fell apart because someone move your alarm clock one inch out of place. That's giving you the most extreme possibility, but it does exist.

Involuntary stress reactions are not always violent either. What I am talking about is an automatic response to stressors, like tapping a nerve in your knee. It can be as simple as an odor that always makes you gag. You may not be able to control it without years of practice, if ever. When ever you come across that odor, you gag uncontrollably. Phobias are involuntary without treatment. It's an uncontrolled and severe fear. It's an uncontrolled response to that fear.

Young autistic children, even if high functioning, struggle in social development. This, as you might imagine, has to be very stressful. Our high functioning kids can learn not to be violent however and that is usually what is required. No, not all are violent. But it stands to reason that kids do go through phase where they will hit or kick other kids because they don't know how to react to the situation at hand. From what I have personally seen in autistic youth, it seems this phase can be drawn out.

Take a kindergartner who bites another student because he is angry. It could be for anything. They could have just bumped into each other. If this kindergartner has autism, that could be a sensory issue. He could have misunderstood and thought the other child did it on purpose. Maybe he reacts to being touched by surprise. Clearly, many factors could take place to the involuntary response. Regardless of them, it's a response from a sudden stress. In most cases, the behavior is correctable and treatable over time. This is involuntary because you combine a sudden stress with lack of developed impulse control.

This is the kind of violence that can be found in autism. It is not calculated or homicidal. It's not meant to be cruel either. It's nothing more than an automatic response to stress. So, when someone wants to talk about violence and autism in the media; it's time to get more of an education on just what kind of violence really happens in autism alone. Autism, by itself, is not a contributor to homicidal or psychopathic tendencies.