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Do People with Asperger Syndrome Lack a Moral Compass?

By May 25, 2011

Is Asperger syndrome a disorder which, in itself, can lead to criminal activity?

I've been surprised by the responses I've received to an earlier blog on the subject.   While I assumed that most people would agree with me that an "Asperger's defense" for the rape and murder of a small child makes no sense and undermines the position of people with AS in general, several readers have taken a very different stance.  Here's a recent comment from a reader called Zusia:

A person with AS alone could argue that the following Asperger's criteria is what caused them to act in a morally inappropriate or criminally offensive way:

(1) encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
(2) apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals

Number 1 covers the most ground because people with AS can indeed have some really bizarre patterns of interest. If a person with AS is intensely focused on trains to the point of engaging in repeated criminal activity, as we've seen in more than one recent news story, another person with AS could be intensely focused on child pornography, say, and unable to control himself sexually, due to the compulsion, when in the presence of a child. A resulting death would most likely be totally accidental as the person comes to grasp with his compulsion and what to do to avoid getting caught.

Number 2 acknowledges ritualistic behavior which, again, speaks to a compulsive nature.

Both the train stalking criminal and the child stalking criminal should be held accountable for breaking the law but the acts themselves can and should be interpreted with Asperger's in mind.

I'm not familiar with the specific cases Zusia mentions, but it disturbs me deeply that members of the autism community are quite comfortable with the idea that Asperger syndrome in and of itself could easily be the cause of violent crimes including the rape and murder of a child.

Granted that AS obviously includes compulsive behaviors, can rape and murder be included among those compulsions?   Do people with AS really lack a moral compass to the degree that violent crime is a common symptom?

Please tell me this is not the case, at least in the vast majority of cases - unless AS is accompanied by major mental illness, delusions or other unrelated issues.

May 25, 2011 at 6:55 pm
(1) Malia says:

Lisa – To me, zusia’s statement that “A person with AS alone could argue that the following Asperger’s criteria is what caused them to act in a morally inappropriate or criminally offensive way” implies something quite a bit different that your interpretation that it means “Asperger syndrome in and of itself could easily be the cause of violent crimes including the rape and murder of a child.” For one thing, zusia does not imply that the success of such an argument would be EASY.

The potential success of such an argument would depend somewhat on jurisdiction, since some courts accept a principle of “irresistible impulse” as a mitigating factor and some jurisdictions have eliminated it. As with all legal cases, it would also have to be individually applied to the specific circumstances of the case.

May 25, 2011 at 7:38 pm
(2) zusia says:

Lisa– you appear to have taken lessons from the popular tv host, Nancy Grace, when you sensationalize like this. To suggest that members of the autism community, including me, are “comfortable” with the connection between Asperger’s and crime, just because we acknowledge the possibility, is unnecessarily dramatic and shows lack of understanding of Asperger’s itself.

People with Asperger’s are known for their research, and for their fascination with facts. It’s possible for us to present facts very dispassionately. That doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with them.

Here’s a good link to start with. I really don’t have time or patience to educate further:


May 25, 2011 at 7:44 pm
(3) zusia says:

“And also, this poll titled “Do People with Asperger Syndrome Lack a Moral Compass?” I don’t understand the correlation. It’s like you don’t understand that people with Asperger’s are people first, and have Asperger’s second. People with Asperger’s are just as capable of having a moral compass as anyone else. It’s not part of the criteria or discussion. It really looks like you’re sensationalizing in attempt to recoup dwindling membership.

May 25, 2011 at 7:48 pm
(4) autism says:

I’m asking the question because I’m surprised at the response I received to the prior blog, and thought it would be a good way to continue the conversation.

Trust me, the few hits I get on this blog – even when I mention the word vaccines – are rarely enough to make a dent in my overall page view stats! Unfortunately, most blog readers aren’t interested in my hundreds of articles, and article readers aren’t very interested in my blog…

Wish it were that easy to build up page views!


May 25, 2011 at 7:48 pm
(5) Elyse Bruce says:

Perhaps the people to ask are people like Kevin Healey and Gary McKinnon and the likes who have no problem whatsoever leveraging Asperger Syndrome as a way to escape the consequences of illegal activities.

Ask Albert Gonzalez and Lisa Brown. Ask Owen Thor Walker and Hans Reiser. Ask Lisa M. Nowak and Robert Durst. Talk to their legal counsel who have all used the Asperger Defence to have charges against their clients dropped, or at least seriously reduced.

It’s more likely that where opportunity to misuse the diagnosis presents itself for the express purpose of misleading the court, those accused and their legal representatives as well as the accused’s defenders and staunch supporters have no difficulty availing themselves of that opportunity.

But ask Adrian Lamo and he’ll tell you that those who engage in criminal activity who happen to also have a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome are choosing to mix apples and oranges to get away with bad decisions and poor choices.

According to the findings of a study done by clinical psychologist, Professor David Allen, of Bridgend-based Bro Morgannwg NHS Trust — over a million participated in the study — there was very little data to support an association between Asperger Syndrome and criminal behaviour.

If there’s very little data to support an association between Asperger Syndrome and criminal behaviour, then one can hardly say that it’s the lack of a moral compass that drives someone with Asperger Syndrome to commit a crime. What drives an Aspie to commit a crime is NOT the diagnosis.

LINK: http://midnightinchicago.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/asperger-syndrome-and-criminal-activity/

May 25, 2011 at 8:37 pm
(6) Sandy says:

That was very well put together and very thought provoking. Thanks for sharing the link, too.

May 25, 2011 at 8:19 pm
(7) Malia says:

There is an obligation for defense counsel to pursue whatever avenues for defense are available to their clients. If they fail to do so, this can be grounds for an appeal… and the client could get off on a technicality.

May 26, 2011 at 7:21 am
(8) autism says:

Malia – it sounds like you know a whole lot more about legal procedure than I do, and it sounds like this issue of the Asperger defense may be a legal necessity rather than a medical judgement.

I wish it weren’t the case, because I really hate the idea that it’s REQUIRED that a defendant attempt to get a jury to believe that AS is a mitigating factor in such a situation…

But I’m seeing that at least a fair number of people disagree with me on this point and do believe it’s a reasonable defense.

That’s rather upsetting, because in my own experience I’ve never met an Aspie who (so far as I know) is so overwhelmed by OCD-type needs that he or she would be unable to control an “impulse” to do something so terrible.

Of course you never know what’s going on behind the scenes or inside someone’s head – but this is Asperger syndrome we’re talking about. While I don’t want to downplay the impact AS has, I really don’t believe that it is a mitigating factor in an intentional, brutal act toward a child.


May 26, 2011 at 9:42 am
(9) Malia says:

What has to be remembered is that an argument entered in a court is not necessarily an argument accepted by the court. The court should be looking at legal arguments, framed by the legal terminology, not medical ones framed by the psychiatric terminology. Even if Aspergers mitigates (changes the degree of the charge) re the case in PA, it is not a surety that it would mitigate a different case and it really says nothing about the general “moral compass” of AS individuals. The issue before the courts is not how Aspergers may affect people with Aspergers, it’s how Aspergers specifically affected one individaul during a specific crime (NB not a specific type of crime). A lot more details about the crime will inform the court in making that assessment than just the diagnosis.

Also, their are rules regarding what specific “defenses” are allowed within certain jurisdictions, different burdens of proof for each, and different degrees based on intent. The notion of “Irresistible impulse” as a legal concept is not accepted in all jurisdictions. “Diminished capacity” cannot be entered in California, so a defense attorney cannot argue that an accused was less able to form intent than anyone else. Some States disallow the “insanity defense.”

Despite a number of similarities in our legal systems, Canada’s version of the “insanity defense” is an entirely different beast because the legislation brought in in 1991 uses the term “mental disorder.” We now have separate provisions for “dangerous mentally disordered accused,” brought in to help ensure the safety of the public.

May 26, 2011 at 9:51 am
(10) autism says:

I hear you Malia, and am sure you’re right… what troubles me, though, is the response to the poll and some of the comments which are not about the legal system but actually about AS as a disorder which – according to some poll voters – is LIKELY to lead to immoral behavior.

Maybe it’s all about semantics (I don’t think of trespassing as “immoral,” so maybe that’s the issue). But overall this is an issue that concerns me… if even folks within the autism community feel that people with Asperger syndrome can’t be trusted to behave morally, do we have a big problem in terms of perception which could lead to serious issues in such areas as employment, community inclusion, social inclusion, etc.?


May 26, 2011 at 11:06 am
(11) Malia says:

On this we do agree – and I believe the media plays a significant role in fostering such lines of thought when they insist on framing reports about legal cases in such generalized psychiatric terms. If something like “Aspergers” is mentioned as part of a defense, then the media will “play it up” as being THE defense.

For example, in the Maryland case:

In Maryland, the difference between 1st and 2nd degree rape appears to be a matter of the amount of “threat of force” used by the perpetrator over the victime. First degree rape carries a life sentence, 2nd degree carries a 20 to 30-year sentence. Several of the articles on the reduction of the sentence of the perpetrator do indicate that there was no evidence the little girl was forced by the perpetrator to go to his home with him. In addition, when he committed the crime he was a minor under the law… yet, the public seems to have the impression that it was only the AS diagnosis that mitigated the sentence. Why?

May 26, 2011 at 12:23 pm
(12) hera says:

Thanks for all the info Malia. very interesting. Lisa,I think the problem is that there are lots of different types of autism.
To give an example there are some autistic spectrum kids/people that I would never trust alone near a baby, while others who are truly gentle who would do a much better job babysitting than many neurotypical kids.

Don’t know if you ever saw the video interview of the young autistic man who randomly hit a baby in a Walmart?It was obvious from the interview that the poor young man had absolutely no sense that what he had done was wrong; he kept telling people to “forget about it”. His mother said she did not know what to do, and that he did not like babies. Possibly in a court of law he would be seen as having diminished responsibility, or maybe an inability to tell right from wrong?
I personally have a problem with some of the high functioning, often self diagnosed asperger adults who seem to use the diagnosis as an excuse to treat others badly. There is a difference between not understanding that you are hurting people, and choosing to continue to do so when you become aware of the issue.
I admit to suspecting that at least some of this subset does not actually have aspergers, but instead uses the diagnosis to allow themselves to behave badly towards others; probably in actual fact they more likely have sociopathic/narcissistic tendencies.
The case of the rape and murder of a little girl; my heart goes out to the family involved. A terrible tragedy, and one that I do not think is explained by an aspergers diagnosis.

May 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm
(13) autism says:

Hera – I’m really only thinking about Asperger syndrome, and not about the autism spectrum in general.

Obviously some folks on the more severe end of the spectrum are unable to understand respond to abstract social rules of any sort.


May 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm
(14) barbaraj says:

Hera, I’m with you on the self labeling.

The case in Maryland…was very odd in that the defendent was not diagnosed “AT ALL” until after the crime. Talk radio covered it yesterday, title.. “autism defense-as a new precedent”.
I don’t know about separating aspergers from autism, maybe the diagnostics are written somewhere in stone but for the purpose of law I’m betting there are no differences. A few parents called in, a common theme rang, they believe their autistic children , those high functioning or aspergers , understand the moral boundaries but often impulsively cross them. ..obsessions..compulsions..impulsiveness.. became the key words.When did we think we could throw our kids out the door and say, “you will function fine now..you know the rules”.
I’m a big cryer, probably a personal weakness, but I do cry, I don’t see the “difference to be embraced”, I see pain in the kids, pain in the families, and little baby steps that bring joy in a bizarro world, where in reality those baby steps mean nothing. This flood of “difference” is coming at us, it’s blindsiding health, education, and now the judicial system. If we could only make the players in this tell the truth, this is NEW, this is not something that’s always been with us. This is the only disease ever, where funding comes in in droves to provide studies to prove a negative, to actually work AGAINST a cure. JMO

May 26, 2011 at 1:55 pm
(15) Malia says:

“The case in Maryland…was very odd in that the defendent was not diagnosed “AT ALL” until after the crime.” Not odd, since a perpetrator’s self-assurance that he had a condition (any condition) or a “suspected” condition by anyone else would be insufficient “evidence.” To obtain more definitive evidence of a condition, an psychiatric assessment would be made and submitted into court as “expert testimony.” The precise name of the diagnosis would probably not, in an of itself, carry much significance. The court’s task would be to assess how the defendant’s specific behavior impacted the crime. Where the mere possibility of a “mens rea” (mental state) affecting the crime might exist, failure by the defense to get an assessment would be seriously remiss. People with AS (or any other mental disorder) are legally entitled – just the same as anyone else – to a vigorous and effective defense.

May 28, 2011 at 8:35 am
(16) Malia says:

Legal aspects aside, here’s a write up on one study on the process of moral decision making – comparison children with autism and children without: http://www.philosophy.utah.edu/faculty/mallon/Materials/TVCB.pd

May 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm
(17) barbaraj says:


Thanks Malia..going to read it now..needed a link fix

May 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm
(18) barbaraj says:

My next door neighbor’s fifteen yr old son has always appeared to be on the spectrum, now that he’s pooping in his pants when he doesn’t get his way and causing so much damage to the family he’s finally being diagnosed, but……………ODD. Look ,I’m no expert, but I think this is where we are heading with so many damaged children .The system can’t get it all right, and they are tossing labels at these kids left and right. I’ve known this kid since he was a toddler, and at 200 pounds his symptoms aren’t quite so manageable now, but they aren’t really different. I AM afraid of him, I do not want my six year old, whom he doesn’t like, near him . Do we think the stories in the news of wrestling murders and such were committed by NT’s?

May 31, 2011 at 12:15 am
(19) Springingtiger says:

I think our morality may be informed by different criteria. Behaviour should be logical and based on logical premises thus much of conventional morality is flawed. I don’t think we are any more likely to kill than anyone else, that society has a moral code has not prevented murder.

July 12, 2011 at 2:40 pm
(20) aspieliberation says:

First off, only a small minority of aspies are criminalised, and aspies are more likely to be victims of ‘crime’ than ‘offenders’. Since our amygdalas are 15% larger on average that NT’s, we are actually 15% more compassionate than NT’s – *if and when* we understand the other is truly suffering in a way we can relate to.

Trying to hold aspies “to account” by legal means is the wrong way to deal with difference, because there is usually a lack of mens rea. Difference must be tolerated, not repressed.

The train case (Darius McCollum) is real and this unfortunate man is a victim of a state vendetta. His “compulsion”, like Kevin Mitnick’s, could easily be handled by giving him a job in his “compulsive” field. The refusal to do this is an act of social war by NT society, and he is entirely justified in meeting his needs by illicit means, just like someone who steals to eat. Make no mistake, we are talking about a *need* here – an aspie deprived of their fixation will go into a PTSD-like breakdown. The suffering will be far stronger than the effects of depriving an NT of their religious practice for example, which is considered inhumane.

The rape/murder example is hypothetical and is mostly being used as an emotive pretext to refuse to reject the criminalisation of aspie characteristics. There is speculation about Dahmer being aspie, but with his superficial charm, he’s more likely to be a sociopath. There have been occasional aspie rape cases, but these involved communication problems or lack of empathy, not fixations. It should be treated as a question of teaching empathy, not a question of punishing deviance.

July 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm
(21) aspie liberation says:

All aspies have a strong moral compass, but it is also intensely personal: each aspie will literally and concretely apply her or his own ethical standards, where necessary against majority prejudices (unless strongly indoctrinated, we don’t “do” social conventions – these run through the medial prefrontal cortex which we don’t have – our ethics runs through the amygdala). In less authoritarian times, this was called ‘having principles’. Aspies also have an extremely strong sense of concrete justice, any violation of which is taken to be an outrage. This in itself is sometimes criminalised, such as refusing to leave a store until one gets a refund. However, the moral compass only applies to fully conscious actions, when the aspie has mens rea. Fixations (so-called compulsions) can be all-encompassing, and meltdown is completely outside conscious control (similar to an epileptic fit). Aspies may use force during meltdowns but this *must not* be viewed as an intentional and liable act (the closest NT equivalent would be an act in blind panic). The only viable ways to handle meltdowns are to avoid or desensitise the stressors which cause them.

A more important question here is that it is inhumane to imprison aspies. Many aspies have problems communicating and are prone to suffer intensely from certain sensory stimuli. It is easy for an abusive prisoner or screw to learn an aspie’s meltdown triggers so as to deliberately cause meltdowns. I believe that jailing aspies amounts to torture (the subjective effect is similar to the induced sensory overload used at Guantanamo), and therefore prohibited under international law, if it is read in a non-discriminatory way.

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