News: Mar 02, 2017
Last year, I was the lead researcher in a team that looked for the presence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in a sample of 75 mass shooters selected by Mother Jones (a reader-supported and non-profit news organisation that made the selection in order to avoid the potential biases inherent in selecting mass shooters ourselves). We found six cases – or 8% of the total number of mass shooters in the sample – who either had a diagnosis of autism, or whose family and friends suspected they had an ASD. Although this is about eight times higher than the rate of ASD within the general population, the findings do not suggest that people with autism are more likely to become mass shooters. ASD may influence, but does not cause, an individual to commit extreme violent acts such as a mass shooting episode (Allely, Wilson, Minnis, Thompson, Yaksic, & Gillberg, 2016). What we have described so far in a very small subgroup of individuals with ASD has recently been highlighted by Faccini (2016) in his theoretical paper where he applied two different models in order to attempt to understand the intended mass violence in the case of mass shooter Adam Lanza who was diagnosed with ASD. The three factors of autism-based deficits, psychopathology and deficient psychosocial development was adapted to include the “Path to Intended Violence,” to understand the possible route to mass shooting in a very small subgroup of individuals with ASD.
Last year I teamed up with Dr Lino Faccini, a psychologist based in the US, to apply this pathway to violence model in order to understand the pathway to intended violence in the case of Anders Breivik (Faccini & Allely, 2016). On 22 July 2011, the 32-year-old Norwegian bombed government buildings in Oslo and then went on a shooting spree on the island of Utøya, killing 77 people. Why did Breivik kill? After studying detailed assessments of the far-right terrorist, as well as Breivik’s own self-published manifesto, we have found that a condition known as “narcissistic decompensation” may have been behind his belief that he was waging a personal and political war. In our paper, published last year in the journal of Aggression and Violent Behavior, we highlighted that, by the age of 27, Anders Breivik’s life experiences up until this point culminated in failed attempts to gain positions of status and power, acceptance and admiration from others. Thereupon at the age of 27, Breivik moves back in with his mother and experiences a “narcissistic decompensation”. A narcissistic decompensation can occur when someone with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) experiences significant crises and major injuries to their self-esteem. The Narcissistic Decompensation can consist of a depression marked by psychomotor retardation, disrupted sleep patterns, becoming perseverative in one’s speech or writings, pursuing an addiction and expressing a sense of outrage. As a result, the person isolates himself due to the harsh reality that he is not of grand power or status and may turn to himself to feed his own grandiosity by supplying his own sense of adoration and attention.
Given the indicated higher prevalence of narcissistic traits or NPD in mass shooters (e.g., Bondü & Scheithauer, 2014) and the suspected higher prevalence of ASDs found in mass shooters (Allely et al., 2016), it may be important to investigate the overlap between these two disorders/traits in mass shooters. It is possible that the co-occurrence of both ASD and narcissism is a particularly ‘explosive’ combination, a combination which makes an individual with autism more at risk of engaging in extremely violent behaviour. However, it is important to caution here that narcissistic traits are not a necessary condition for motivating a shooting. Likewise, simply having a diagnosis of an ASD combined with NPD will not by itself necessarily propel an individual on the path to intended violence. We stress that there are other additional factors which are necessary such as psychosocial stressors, childhood adverse factors, etc.
The pathway to violence – and the factors that drive some to become mass shooters – require urgent, detailed investigation. If we can identify early patterns of behaviour that can be recognised and flagged up, we could potentially predict those individuals who are at an increased risk of committing extremely violent acts.
Allely, C. S., Wilson, P., Minnis, H., Thompson, L Yaksic, E., & Gillberg, C. (2016). Violence is rare in autism: when it does occur, it is sometimes extreme? Journal of Psychology, 151, 49-68.
Bondü, R., & Scheithauer, H. (2014). Narcissistic symptoms in German school shooters. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 59, 1520–1535.
Faccini, L., & Allely, C. S. (2016). Mass violence in individuals with autism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A case analysis of Anders Breivik using the “Path to Intended and Terroristic Violence” model. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 31, 229-236.
Faccini, L. (2016). The application of the models of autism, psychopathology and deficient Eriksonian development and the path of intended violence to understand the Newtown shooting. Archives of Forensic Psychology, 1, 1–13.