An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer describes Asperger Syndrome as a "new challenge to the courts." Not, as one might imagine, because people with Asperger syndrome are more likely than others to be the victims of crimes. Nor because people with Asperger syndrome are less likely to understand the social expectations around trespassing or stalking. Rather, the article relates to a horrific rape and murder case in which the defendant is a young man with Asperger syndrome. Here's an excerpt from the article:
Often when Jeff Sell watches police videos of a suspect talk about a horrific crime with the same warmth as a toy robot, avoid eye contact, offer precise detailed descriptions - perhaps even a confession - and appear oblivious to the harm caused, he doesn't see a monster.
What Sell sees is Asperger's.
"That is the textbook definition," said Sell, an attorney and vice president of public policy for the Autism Society of America.
A definition that fits a small but growing number of criminal defendants, such as James Lee Troutman, the 24-year-old man accused of raping and murdering his 9-year-old neighbor Skyler Kauffman earlier this month at the Souderton Gardens apartment complex where they lived.
The article goes on to describe an "Asperger's defense" as a way of avoiding criminal prosecution for the worst crimes imaginable. While Asperger's on its own may not be sufficient for an insanity plea, the article suggests, it goes a long way in that direction.
In my opinion, this is a frightening depiction of a disorder which, in and of itself, includes neither mental illness nor an inability to reason, understand the law, or grasp the concept of morality. Asperger syndrome can certainly contribute to feelings of alienation and anger, and it can also make it difficult to fully empathize with others' emotions. It can also, in some cases, go along with mental illness. But the idea that people with AS (or people with mental illness) are, by definition, sociopaths capable of the rape and murder of a nine year old is terrifying. In point of fact, it is also, quite simply, wrong. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that a representative of the Autism Society of America is quoted (presumably correctly) as suggesting that such behavior is simply part and parcel of having an Asperger's diagnosis.
What are your thoughts on this issue?