The words autism and terrorism are sharing headlines this week after a defense lawyer told the Associated Press that his client – caught boarding a plane on his way to fight with al-Qaida – is a mixed-up teenager with autism who didn’t understand the gravity of what he was doing.
"Planned violence is very rare in autism and certainly not characteristic,” says psychiatrist Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele. Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele works with children and teens who have autism at the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network center at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville.
Justin Kaliebe, 18, had pleaded guilty in a secret federal court proceeding to the charge of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. His psychiatric condition could be considered in determining his sentence. "Justin Kaliebe is a gentle, misguided, autistic teenager who does not have the ability to fully understand the magnitude and consequences of his actions," defense attorney Anthony La Pinta said in a statement to the AP.
“As a spectrum disorder, autism is quite variable,” Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele says. “But planned violence overall is less common, not more common, in people with autism. When stories like this emerge, it’s sometimes tempting to link a single person's actions to a larger group of people who share something in common.”
Most media reports have not made such implications – a possible reflection of increased awareness and understanding of autism spectrum disorders.