The Geek Defense
Do criminals with Asperger's syndrome deserve special treatment?
By Erica Westly
Some time in the 1990s, during the heyday of the X-Files television show, a British computer enthusiast named Gary McKinnon became obsessed with the idea that the U.S. government had covered up evidence of UFO landings. As an unemployed contract worker, he had plenty of time to pursue his theory: Between 2001 and 2002, McKinnon hacked into nearly 100 U.S. military and NASA computers to look for documents pertaining to UFOs. Prosecutors say that at one point he shut down 2,000 computers in the Army's network. Should he ever be convicted in the United States for that crime and others, he'll face at least six years in federal prison.
"His crime was a symptom of this condition, he says, and serving time in an American prison would be the worst kind of torture given the severity of his social impairments.
Now McKinnon is trying to convince European Court of Human Rights that he just can't take the stress of being extradited and made to stand trial. That's because he has Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder related to autism and characterized, in part, by compulsive behavior and a lack of interpersonal skills. His crime was a symptom of this condition, he says, and serving time in an American prison would be the worst kind of torture given the severity of his social impairments.
If (or when) McKinnon does get extradited, his "Asperger's defense" might still come in handy. Criminal defendants in the United States have been using similar tactics with varying degrees of success in recent years. In fact, it's not all that rare for criminal defendants with Asperger's to argue for leniency in cases of computer fraud, sexual misconduct, and murder. Three years ago, the defense even made its way into an episode of Boston Legal.
"Another, more successful approach to the Asperger's defense highlights its sufferers' propensity for obsessive, repetitive behavior.
How does this gambit work? One of the hallmarks of having Asperger's is a severe difficulty navigating social situations. This awkwardness appears to stem from an inability to detect facial expressions and other social cues; people with autism and Asperger's display a notable lack of empathy for others. Indeed, a 2004 study (PDF) found that both disorders are associated with low scores on a test designed to measure social awareness and compassion. Defense lawyers have argued that violent criminals with Asperger's may therefore be incapable of understanding the harm they're inflicting on another human being.
"Still, the legal system isn't always consistent in its treatment of criminals with developmental disabilities, and the sentences handed down to autistic defendants can vary widely depending on the court.
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Less Sensitivity to Hormone May Play Role in Autism
A new genetic signature that's strongly associated with autism has been identified by U.S. researchers, who said the finding may lead to new ways to diagnose and treat the disorder.
This genetic signature doesn't involve changes to DNA sequence itself, but rather to the way that genes are switched on and off, said the team from Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. They found that people with autism have a higher-than-normal number of gene-regulating molecules called methyl groups in a region of the genome that regulates oxytocin receptor expression.
"This genetic signature doesn't involve changes to DNA sequence itself, but rather to the way that genes are switched on and off, said the team from Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
"In both blood samples and brain tissue, the methylation status of specific nucleotides in the oxytocin receptor gene is significantly higher in someone with autism, about 70 percent, compared to the control population, where it is about 40 percent," study co-lead author Simon G. Gregory, an assistant professor in the Duke department of medicine, said in a university news release.
Oxytocin is a hormone that affects social interaction. Previous research found that giving oxytocin to people with autism can improve their ability to socialize. The hormone is being investigated as a possible treatment for autism, the study authors noted.
In their report, published in the Oct. 21 online edition of the journal BMC Medicine, the researchers noted that higher methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene may result in less sensitivity to the hormone. The authors suggested that their research may lead to ways to identify people who will respond better to treatment with oxytocin.
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Click here for article on Possible Link Between Autism And Oxytocin Gene Via Non-DNA Sequence Mutation.
Raising autism awareness after CFHS shooting/stabbing
By Laura Thomas
MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - In light of the shooting and stabbing at Carolina Forest High School, WMBFNews wanted to take a look at what someone living with autism goes through.
Last week, Carolina Forest High School was forced into lockdown after a special needs student attacked a school resource officer. Horry County Police say 16-year-old Trevor Varinecz, a junior with a form of autism, stabbed Officer Marcus Rhodes multiple times with two knives.
According to the police report, Rhodes fired at the teen in self defense, hitting him multiple times.
"If you were to come into our classroom here, it would be hard for you to tell the child with Asperger from a typically developing child, just as an observer," Voltz-Loomis said, adding most autistic children's problems lie in socializing with others. "They're not able to connect socially or read social cues, [like] facial expressions, for instance."
The incident has raised a lot of questions about the form of autism that Trevor Varinecz had.
Robin Brunson knew from an early age, her son Jacob was not like the other children.
"I knew something was different, but I didn't know much about autism," she explained. "Instead of playing with other kids, he would pick up pine straw on the playground when he was little."
At 8 years old, Jacob was diagnosed with autism.
"You're worried about the future and what that will bring, but once you get past that, you just want to do whatever you can to help the situation," she said.
According to the CDC, one in 150 children in the United States has autism.
Jeanne Voltz-Loomis, director of the Child Development Ministry of First United Methodist Church, says autistic children usually have normal language skills and perform just as well, if not better than, other students in school.
"It's very upsetting, and I just hope everybody realizes that this was an isolated case, and he was a good kid," Brunson said. "We don't know exactly what he was thinking and hopefully the schools will realize that they need more support in place for kids like Trevor and my son Jacob."
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Safety and Efficacy of Oral DMSA Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Part B - Behavioral Results
This study investigated the effects of oral dimercapto succinic acid (DMSA) therapy on the behavioural symptoms of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) ages 3-8 years.
Methods: Phase 1 involved 65 children with ASD who received one round of DMSA (3 days). Participants who had high urinary excretion of toxic metals were selected to continue on to phase 2.
In phase 2, 49 participants were randomly assigned in a double-blind design to receive an additional 6 rounds of either DMSA or placebo.
"Conclusions: Overall, both one and seven rounds of DMSA therapy seems to be reasonably safe in children with ASD who have high urinary excretion of toxic metals, and possibly helpful in reducing some of the symptoms of autism in those children.
Results: The groups receiving one round and seven rounds of DMSA had significant improvements on all the assessment measures. The degree of improvement on the assessment measures could be partially explained by a regression analysis based on excretion of toxic metals and changes in glutathione (adjusted R2 of 0.28-0.75, p<0.02 in all cases).
One round of DMSA had nearly the same benefit as seven rounds. The assessment measures correlated reasonably with one another at the beginning of the study (r=0.60-0.87) and even better at the end of the study (r=0.63-0.94).
Click here for entire article on Safety and Efficacy of Oral DMSA Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Part B - Behavioral Results.
'Meeting my father was a shock'
By Sara Parker
Producer, Adults with Autism
On first meeting, there is little evidence of the internal struggle Chris Goodchild faces daily as someone living with Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism.
"We can get bombarded with stimulation and information and can become easily confused and overwhelmed."
"I don't have the ability to put onto my face the distress that I feel," says Chris, one of an estimated 500,000 people in the UK with autism spectrum disorder.
"Often we want to scream and shout, but most of us do so internally. The way we cope is to withdraw."
"Seeing him was like seeing Asperger's unleashed," said Chris.
"The man looked like Rasputin with long unwashed hair
Autism is a developmental condition characterised by problems in social communication with a lack of empathy towards others.
People with the condition often engage in ritualistic and obsessive compulsive behaviours, as well as a very different way of thinking from the normal - that is neuro-typical - brain.
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