Maggie Gallagher

When the press reported that Adam Lanza had Asperger's syndrome (part of the autism spectrum disorders) and other unspecified personality problems, the autism community swung into action in a way that is totally understandable. The Associated Press' headline: “Experts: No Link Between Asperger's, Violence”

The vast majority of autistic people are not violent. Autistics like Temple Grandin, the professor who helped create humane strategies for the meat industry, remind us that many people with high-functioning also go on to live full, rich lives of value to themselves and others.

Grandin also reminded us that, for autistic people, “The principal emotion experienced by autistic people is fear.”

If you cannot read people's social cues, it's hard to tell who is a threat and who is not. If you live in a world with social rules created by “neurotypicals” that make no sense, anxiety and fear are natural, perhaps inevitable, responses.

But the suggestion that science has demonstrated there is no link at all between autism and aggressive violence is questionable.

Google “autism” and “aggression” and you will suddenly be treated to a counter world the formal autism community claims does not exist: desperate mothers seeking help or respite from the violent behavior of large, aggressive, beloved autistic boys (and a few girls).

In the name of love and absent decent institutions for these troubled young adults, we are permitting a silent epidemic of domestic terrorism against women that we would not tolerate under any other banner.

These are mothers. Many are willing to sacrifice their lives, if necessary, to keep their beloved sons out of institutions that would terrify them.

Consider an essay by novelist Ann Bauer. She believed passionately that autism is a beautiful, mysterious neurodifference. She wrote essays about her fierce love for her son Andrew and his beautiful mind. Then in 2009, she wrote another essay, “The Monster Inside My Son,” after learning about Trudy Steuernagel's murder by her 18-year-old autistic son, Sky:

”I'm exhausted and hopeless and vaguely hung over because Andrew, who has autism, also has evolved from sweet, dreamy boy to something like a golem: bitter, rampaging, full of rage. It happened no matter how fiercely I loved him or how many therapies I employed.”

Ann is an “official writer,” but on the Web there is heartbreak galore.

One mother of an 11-year-old with high-functioning autism:

”Over the last year he has evolved into a violently tempered child who seems to 'snap' when things (don't) go his way. He is at a point now that he has pulled knives on us and our other child and has threatened to kill us. ... I have no idea what to do and I'm in tears daily.”

Another mom:

“He has bitten me, tried to strangle me, tried to sit on my younger son to crush him when he was an infant (18 months old) talked of shooting us, shooting our younger son in the eye with a bow and arrow, punched himself in the face so he got a black eye, threw large objects at us like our baby's sit-and-spin, kicked my husband in the groin area, aggressed toward babies in the park, punched me and my younger son while I was driving etc. ... This is the short list.”

Yet another:

“I have spent the entire evening feeling so alone. Thanks for all your stories. I am recovering from my son's outburst this evening. The bruises from the last one were just starting to heal. He has autism, and at 13, he is over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. There are pieces bitten out of my arms and hands, and my breast and stomach are full of red bruises. His much smaller twin brother tried to get him off of me and got bit in the process. I sent him out of the room so he would not get hurt any further. My husband left us and a divorce is in the works.”

Enough anecdotes.

The 19th European Congress of Psychiatry abstracts included one study of “autism and violence.” Researchers in Morocco handed out questionnaires to families being served by handicapped centers. They found that 43.3 percent of families in this sample reported problems with aggression.

According to another recent study, “The prevalence of and risk factors for aggression were examined in 1,380 children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Prevalence was high, with parents reporting that 68 percent had demonstrated aggression to a caregiver and 49 percent to non-caregivers.”

The human cost of denying the relationship between autism and aggression is simply unacceptable. Mothers need to know they should not allow themselves to be hit, beaten, bitten or threatened in their own homes. And a mother like Liza Long, who is afraid enough to have developed a “safe” for her younger children in the event their brother goes berserk, needs to know her first obligation, her very first one, is to protect those siblings and give them a safe home.

We need to give them better options than generalized overcrowded psych wards, jail and permitting violence against mothers.


Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.