Tuesday, February 24, 2009

All Autistics Who Oppose Neurodiversity are High Functioning

A common observation about the neurodiversity movement is that its vocal proponents are all "high functioning."

This is technically true. Consider the definition of "high functioning" used in research. Any individual who does not have mental retardation, i.e. anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher, is considered high functioning. Based on this definition, I believe all of the prominent proponents of neurodiversity or autistic rights are in fact high functioning.

Whatever other challenges autistics who are part of the neurodiversity movement might have now or might have had in the past, critics can always fall back to complex written opinion and proclaim "this person is obviously high functioning, intellectually."

This observation is usually made as if it were a curious and surprising discovery. "Of course they don't want a cure! Look at them, they are all high functioning!"

What is never mentioned is that all autistics who are vocal opponents of neurodiversity, and all autistics who write in length about the need for a cure, are also high functioning.

Is that also a curious discovery? Can we infer from this that only high functioning autistics would want a cure? Can we say that these high functioning individuals don't have a right to speak for all autistics?

It's true, though. All the vocal pro-cure autistics I know of are clearly high functioning. Let's go through a short list.

Jon Mitchell.- He's clearly high functioning, as he himself admits.

Sue Rubin.- She has written about her being pro-cure. While she calls herself "low functioning," she's mistaken about that. Her IQ is reportedly 133. Intellectually, she functions at a much higher level than most NTs.

Raun Kaufman.- He's so high functioning that he even claims to have turned into a non-autistic. (I realize he works for his parents the organization his parents founded [corrected 2/27/2009] and is apparently single in his late 30s or early 40s, but he obviously wants to market himself as non-autistic.)

Thomas McKean.- I know of him from his article titled A Danger in Speaking. He's clearly high functioning.

Then I've also heard of Asperger autistics who speak from time to time at rallies organized by the anti-vax autism community. Those autistics are clearly high functioning as well.

So there you have it. Prominent anti-cure autistics are high functioning. But so are prominent pro-cure autistics. Is that surprising? Not in the least. Yet, it's used as an argument against anti-cure autistics exclusively.

Anti-cure autistics, given they are high functioning, are told they should not speak for all autistics (even though there's no evidence that any of them claim to speak for all autistics.) Parents of autistic children, on the other hand, can apparently speak for all autistics (see Autism Speaks), even though the parents themselves are high functioning and non-autistic. That is, unless the parents are also autistic, in which case they again don't have a right to speak for all autistics.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Are Autistics More or Less Likely To Commit Murder?

I'm sure many readers must have heard about the case of Sky Walker, an autistic teenager who has allegedly murdered his mother.

As you might expect, some people are using this case to support their views about autism. Kim Stagliano, for example, apparently argues that treatment is both necessary and effective in preventing this sort of circumstance. Plausible as her argument may sound to many, she has not presented any data to support it that I know of.

Harold Doherty has written about the case, trying to connect it to awareness of self-injury. Interestingly, Harold Doherty had been recently arguing that Andrew Wakefield should not be considered guilty until he is convicted by a tribunal of some sort. Harold has not expressed the same reservations about the media treatment of the Sky Walker case.

I'm not going to talk about the philosophical implications of the case, or possible root causes, etc. Others would be much better at doing that. What I will do is see if we can confirm or reject the hypothesis that autistics commit murder more (or less) often than non-autistics.

As you can imagine, there's no published data on the rate of murders committed by autistics. So do we give up and say we just don't know?

Let us first determine if autistics are more or less likely to murder than to be murdered. (I realize it's not the same question, but I think it's an important preliminary question we should try to answer.)

Consider this. The number of non-autistics who commit murder is roughly the same as the number of non-autistics who are murdered. If you discount mass murders and conspiracy murders, this is roughly correct. Is the same true of autistics?

I will assume that both murders of autistics and murders committed by autistics are reported in the media with good and fairly equivalent frequency. I contend this is a reasonable assumption, though I admit I could be wrong.

I carried out a Google News archive search of "autism murder" between 2008 and 2009. I'll just go over the first 3 pages of the search results (as I don't intend to spend days on this.) These are the persons accused of murder mentioned in the stories:

  • Karen McCarron (non-autistic)
  • Flower Nicole Tompson (non-autistic)
  • Robert Napper (autistic)
  • Xuan (Linda) Peng (non-autistic)
  • John Odgren (autistic)
  • A schoolboy (non-autistic)
  • Allen Grabe (non-autistic)
  • Judith Leekin (non-autistic)
  • Andrew Reid Lackey (autistic)
  • Unnamed boy (autistic)

That's 6 non-autistics and 4 autistics who have been accused of murder according to the set of stories that was examined. It's close. I'd say we can't reject the null hypothesis here, but it's possible that autistics are slightly more likely to be murdered than to murder.

An obvious counter-point is that the carers of autistics might be more prone to murder than non-autistics in the general population, so the comparison does not tell us whether autistics are less violent than non-autistics, only that we are equally or less violent than non-autistic carers of autistics. However, if it is true that the stress related to caring for an autistic person tends to increase the murder rate by carers, wouldn't the same hold true about the stress experienced by the autistic persons who are cared for?

Let's try to estimate what the rate of murder by autistics should be in the US, if autistics were just as prone to committing murder as non-autistics. There were 16,929 murders in the US in 2007 [source]. Using a conservative estimate of murderers who should be autistic (50 in 10,000), it would seem that about 85 murders should have been committed by autistics in 2007, by chance alone, without assuming autistics are more prone to murder.

Clearly, 85 murders by autistics were not reported in the media in 2007, otherwise you'd see daily blog posts about it from people like Harold Doherty, John Best and Kim Stagliano. One probable reason why we don't see those reports is that autism is more than likely underrecognized in adults. Is it possible autistics are less prone to murder than non-autistics? I wouldn't rule it out, but we just don't have enough evidence to say this.


There is simply no evidence that autistics are more prone to committing murder than non-autistics. Such views are only supported by anecdotes and socially constructed notions of autistic characteristics. A cursory look at available reports in the media does not support the claim that autistics are more violent than non-autistics.