Linking autism to serial killers: why scientists need to be more careful in how they report their research

Dr Elisabeth Hurley | Research Officer for Autism West Midlands

A research article was published recently, which explored the link between autism, head injury and psychosocial factors in serial killers and mass murderers.

Before I go on, I am going to make one thing very clear: there is no research evidence to indicate that people with autism are more likely to commit crime, and there is actually some evidence which implies they may be less likely to do so (according to Ghaziuddin et al 1991 and Woodbury-Smith et al 2005).

In this particular research article, the researchers were interested in looking at mass murderers and serial killers and seeing whether they had autism and/or a head injury and/or psychosocial factors (being abused as a child for example). The widely reported results of this study were that 28% of mass murderers and serial killers were thought to have autism and 21% had sustained a head injury.

Well that was easy – clearly what we have here is a “significant statistical link between mass murder and autism, brain injury” (according to the Washington Post). But do we really? To answer that, a person would need to be able to dig into the research article itself. Having read the research, I have come to a very different conclusion.

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