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Astronaut Lisa Nowak Includes Asperger Syndrome in Her Defense

By August 30, 2007

Remember Lisa Nowak, the astronaut? A while back she was in the news for being one third of a love triangle - and for stalking and attacking her rival. This made headlines, in part, because of Nowak's status as an astronaut-role model. As a sideline, Nowak may or may not have worn diapers during her drive from Texas to Florida - as a way to avoid the delays of pitstops along the way to confront her boyfriend and his new lover.

A note in yesterday's Washington Post describes Nowak's plans for her defense:

Former astronaut Lisa M. Nowak is pursuing a temporary-insanity defense on charges that she assaulted and tried to kidnap a romantic rival, according to a court document released Tuesday.

Nowak suffered from major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia and "brief psychotic disorder with marked stressors," defense attorney Donald Lykkebak wrote in his notice of intent to rely on the insanity defense.

The notice also describes Nowak as having Asperger syndrome, a condition with autism-like symptoms that causes problems with social skills and can lead to eccentric behavior.

It will be interesting to learn how this defense pans out for Nowak. It's hard to believe that person, no matter how qualified, could become an astronaut with the diagnoses she's describing. Just as interesting is the fact that, on top of so many other very serious mental issues, Nowak is now described as autistic. This is, of course, not the first time that a serious crime has been connected - at least loosely - with autism.

What's your take on this new twist? Do you think Nowak's description of herself as autistic will be taken seriously? When do you suppose she received that diagnosis? And - how did she (apparently) keep her autism hidden for so long?

August 30, 2007 at 2:29 pm
(1) Katgirl says:

This sounds like a fabricated defense to me. Nowak has been described as “popular” and “well-liked” in high school, not something one normally associates with autism or Asperger’s. Even if she was a bit on the nerdy or perseverative side, her successes make it clear that she lacked the “clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning” required for diagnosis, at least until her more recent psychotic breaks.

August 30, 2007 at 2:29 pm
(2) Dana says:

Mentally ill, perhaps, but Aspergers is a stretch. People with Aspergers tend to have the ability to make such an elaborate plan that would involve so much manipulation. A person on the Autism Spectrum often need concrete boundaries and structure. The idea that a person on the Autism Spectrum would spontaneously go on a cross country trip without a plan that somewhat followed their daily routine and rituals, is not very likely. The defense attorney and client should be ashamed of themselves to take a diagnosis that others legitimately have and struggle with on a daily basis, to help their own cause.

August 31, 2007 at 1:30 am
(3) Blair says:

I just hope that she is not using asperger’s as an exuse for her behavior. It always seems a bit weary to me when someone makes a mistake and then suddenly announces some type of special needs that no one had ever associated them with before. If she really does has aspergers… fine, but her timing seems just a bit coincidental in my opinion. It would be unfair to take manipulate the situation with such a claim. I also think it is unfair to people who really do have special needs when people do that. It gives a bad reputation to people who really do have aspergers. Like in the V-Tech shootings-all of a sudden they started talking about “He (the shooter) may have been autistic.” It may have been true, but like I said the timing of these announcements just seems too coincidental and it seems to me special needs are often used as an exuse for things people shouldn’t have done. In otherwords, it can often seem like a cop-out when they announce the special needs right after a public mistake.

August 31, 2007 at 4:12 am
(4) Leo Capella says:

From a person who’s on the spectrum this seems like a classic case of the Twinkie Defence to me and should be treated as such, unless the evidence clearly states otherwise. Maybe Aspergers might have contributed to low social skills but put it this way I don’t believe it would have been the final trigger to cause her to go after and confront her ex. That seems like a crime of passion.

September 1, 2007 at 10:54 pm
(5) Tom says:

Judges and juries are still ignorant enough about what Asperger’s for lawyers to be able to use it as a “defense” (i.e. weapon) when they are defending someone who is charged with something.

The worst part of it is that there are enough “experts” arund who will back up a lawyer’s assertion that AS makes people cause crime, and the media has no problem proliferating this falsehood.

September 2, 2007 at 5:47 pm
(6) Kathi says:

Is NASA THAT INEPT? Did they really miss OCD, Psychosis, Depression, and Aspergers when screening this woman for the astronaut training program?

September 2, 2007 at 10:59 pm
(7) MichelleH says:

After 30 yrs of working in special education, I don’t think any autistic or asperger kid I encountered has ever ended up working with NASA. If indeed she is in the spectrum, her school records would support that diagnosis. Otherwise, she’s just a real strange bird I’m afraid.

September 3, 2007 at 12:42 pm
(8) Michele Miles Pelzer says:

Give me a break! Any positive press about someone with Asperger’s being able to aspire to the space program (and there are plenty of Asperger’s kids who have the intellect and dedication) is vitiated by Ms. Nowak’s using her alleged Asperger’s as a scapegoat to avoid the consequences of her behavior. Our Asperger’s 13 year old is well-liked, popular with friends, involved in his school and his parish, and ranks first in his class. These kids are ‘snowflakes’ – no two alike and each one of them fascinating. My son may spend too much time memorizing movie credits or making lists of Jeopardy categories, but I assure you he would not drive cross-county in Depends for the purpose of taking out a romantic rival! He’d talk to someone about how to handle his feelings, and make a logical plan as a person of logic and intellect. I hope there is help for Ms. Nowak and that her legal team is sufficiently creative that they can come up with a theory which holds water, because it isn’t THIS one!

September 4, 2007 at 8:45 am
(9) Ivy says:

People have no idea how common is to know at least one person with Asperger’s and not really ‘know’ they have it, and might consider this person brilliant but ‘odd’. Because of stigma associated with the condition, many choose not to disclose it. Having said this, whether Ms. Novak has Asperger’s or not, that should not preclude her to face the consequences of her actions.

September 4, 2007 at 11:48 pm
(10) Michelle says:

As a parent of a child with Aspergers this is very disheartening to hear. As if its not hard enough to educate people about autism and the spectrum now they are going to associate a astronaut who wore diapers to confront her lover with Aspergers?? Who is this woman’s lawyer and whatever doctor gave them this an idea for a defense because I would love to educate them. What ever happened to just being an idiot? It really makes me second guess our space program that millions upon millions of dollars of our tax money is invested in if they are missing all of these diagnoses she is states she has. Is anyone else a little pissed off by this?? Just curious..

September 6, 2007 at 3:01 pm
(11) Michele Beth says:

Using A.S. as a defense?? Yeah, right. Do the research and you’ll see that those with A.S. are NOT violent at all. This just puts people on the spectrum in a bad light, as usual, and I’m insulted that they would use what my own children have as a “defense”. Yes, this pisses me off.

September 10, 2007 at 3:17 am
(12) Emere says:

She has a grab bag of everything. We are not that egotistical. I think it is an oxymoron the whole defense.

September 10, 2007 at 9:46 am
(13) Penni says:

I agree with Michelle, I am also the parent of an Asperger’s child. He has a genius level IQ & I have no doubt that if space were his interest, he would have no problems getting a job at NASA. I also have no doubt that if a girl broke up with him and she started dating someone else, he would get over it just like everyone else. People need to research Asperger’s & autism more prior to using it as an excuse. Autistic people are NOT crazy!!

September 15, 2007 at 1:50 pm
(14) Keith says:

The job of her defense team is to get her off with little or no consequences, not to seek the truth. Using ASD as a defense is no more distasteful than asserting that one’s culture permits a man to go into a temporary psychotic rage and maim/disfigure his wife for some real or perceived offense (see “amok defense” for example). As parents of children with ASD, it’s not something that we want to condone as it only adds to the misperception of people with ASD. Yet, even IDEA allows this to be raised as a “defense” during a manifestation determination hearing. Talk about a two-sided sword!

September 17, 2007 at 4:33 pm
(15) Debbie says:

I’m also the parent of an AS child, an 11 year old girl. I’ve had to fight for her rights both in the schools and in court with my ex (nothing could be wrong with HIS kid). In both cases, I’ve had to get a psychologist to do all the tests to provide sufficient evidence, even though some of them had been done before. So I know first hand what the standards are for testimony on AS when you go to court. So my question for all you people who are so down on Lisa Nowak is, how do you think her doctors came up with that diagnosis? Do you think the just looked around for the latest gimmick to pull the wool over people’s eyes? Do you think that would stand up to cross examination? I can tell you first hand that judges and lawyers on the other side aren’t intimidated by an MD after someone’s name. No, if they’re saying she has AS, they’ve done the tests and done them properly, and she has it. Did AS make her do the things she did? No. She clearly has more serious mental illnesses, but AS could have contributed. My daughter deals with depression, social phobia, and has crying fits because of her inability to fit in with kids at school, and this is with her mom knowing she has AS and getting her whatever help she can. Suppose Lisa Nowak didn’t know she had AS? Who are we to assume what might have gone on with her? And one other thing, let’s all stop whining about how this makes things harder for people with AS. It doesn’t. If anything it shows how things can get out of control if people are ignorant of it. This whole Lisa Nowak case is a bunch of media hype anyway, about some stupid symbolism, as if anyone really believes that astronauts are Superman and Wonder Woman. Maybe instead we should hope that someone with AS can put her life back together.

June 12, 2008 at 2:40 pm
(16) wellread says:

Good grief people! Just because this woman may have Asperger’s does not mean it relates in any way to her pychotic break…. She is very strong in math/engineering/physics and therefore it would not surprise me at all for her to be on the autistic spectrum… And though Asperger’s quite OBVIOUSLY is not related to her actions it is not as though people people with Asperger’s are so special that they are immune to criminal or aggressive actions…just like “neurotypicals”….

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