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Researcher finds autistic people ‘not more likely to become mass shooters’

Wednesday 18 May 2016

A University of Salford psychologist has said people with autism are not more likely to become mass shooters.

But Dr Clare Allely, who has analysed dozens of cases of mass shooting incidents in US schools and shopping malls, has concluded that more work is urgently needed to find out what other factors may make people with autism spectrum disorders more likely to take part in these violent episodes.

The research, published in the Journal of Psychology, looked at 75 individuals responsible for mass shooting incidents between1982-2015, from a database collated by the US independent news organisation Mother Jones.

The database, which includes information on the attackers’ profiles, the types of weapons they used and the number of victims they injured and killed, focused specifically on public mass shootings apparently motivated by indiscriminate killing – rather than domestic violence, robbery or terrorism.

Researchers found six cases – or eight per cent of the total number – which referred to either a diagnosis or strong suggestion of autism spectrum disorder by the family and friends of the attacker.

Although this is about eight times higher than the rate of autism spectrum disorders within the general population, Dr Allely says the findings do not suggest that people with autism are more likely to become mass shooters.

More research needs to take place 

Instead, she says that specialist psychological work needs to be developed for people who have autism spectrum disorders and who are also found to be at greater risk of going on to become involved in serious crime, and more research needs to take place to work out exactly what those risk factors are.

Dr Allely points to previous studies which have found that one possible warning sign could be an increased preoccupation with violent incidents among people with autism.

She gives the example of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman responsible for a massacre which killed 26 people – including 20 young children – at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut in December 2012.

The subsequent police investigation found Lanza had researched mass shooting incidents extensively and had even compiled a detailed spreadsheet described by one law enforcement veteran as looking ‘like a doctoral thesis’.

Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 13, as well as being later diagnosed as having obsessive compulsive disorder. His teachers later noted that his writing assignments showed he was obsessed with war and destruction, while at the age of 14 he begun making well informed edits to Wikipedia pages about mass murderers.

New 'criminal autistic psychopathy' diagnosis  

Dr Allely has said there may be a much smaller sub-group of people who have autism and are also more likely to become serious offenders, and has suggested that a new diagnosis of ‘criminal autistic psychopathy’ – previously put forward by other psychologists and psychiatrists – would help differentiate this group from the general population of people with autism.

Dr Allely said: “We are not saying that people with autism are more likely to become mass shooters or commit serious crime, but much more work now needs to be done to look into this very small group of people.

“It’s possible that being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder may make other problems in people’s lives much worse, and make it harder for them to cope.

“It’s incredibly important that we understand more about the factors that lead people to become mass shooters, and this research is still in its infancy.”

Find out more

Conrad Astley

0161 295 6363