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arsonist in handcuffs with a burning house on background
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Fire-setting and Arson in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Clare Allely's latest blog entry

[Posted on 13 August, 2019 by Clare Allely]

‘Arson’ and ‘fire-setting’ are terms used to refer to deliberate acts of fire setting. ‘Arson’ and ‘fire-setting’ are typically used interchangeably in the literature. However, it is important to be aware what makes these two terms distinct from one another. The term arsonist is used to describe someone who has received a conviction for the offence of arson. ‘Fire-setting’, on the other hand, is a term which is used when referring to behaviour which is characterised by the setting of fires, which is deliberate, but no conviction has been given. There have been a number of explanations for this. For instance, the identification of the fire-setter being difficult, the fire resulting in minimal damage or not being detected as being deliberately set.

It is important to emphasise that there are a number of follow-up studies which have found that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are no more likely to engage in violent criminal behaviour compared to the general population. In fact, there have been some studies which indicate that they may actually be less likely to engage in violent criminal behaviour. No empirical support for the notion of a relationship or association between ASD and criminality currently exists.Research has found that in fire-setters, there are high rates of psychiatric mental health disorders, the most commonly found include: schizophrenia, mood disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression), personality disorders, alcohol abuse and intellectual disability. There is now a plethora of studies which have shown that in individuals with ASD, there is a high rate of psychiatric comorbidity. The most commonly found psychiatric comorbidities are those types of psychiatric mental health disorders which have been identified by a large number of studies to be more prevalent in fire-setters (such as anxiety, depression, intellectual disability). Such well-established findings indicate that it may be possible that having an ASD coupled with one or more psychiatric co-morbidity may increase the risk of engaging in fire-setting behaviour. A sort of double hit to put it more simply.

In a recent review, Allely (2019) explored the relatively little research that has been carried out investigating fire-setting or arson in individuals with ASD. A total of eleven studies which explored arson or fire-setting in individuals with ASD were identified in the review by Allely. Specifically, six were case study papers (some including more than one case) and five were empirical studies.One example of a case study is taken from the paper published by Barry-Walsh and Mullen (2004) which reported the case of an individual with ASD who had engaged in arson, Mr. BD. At the time of his assessment, Mr. BD was a 26-year-old male and was charged with arson. He had set fire to a hedge causing significant damage. His intelligence was assessed and was found to be within the normal range. At the age of 21 year she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Mr. BD began to develop an interest in flickering flames. It was also reported by his family that he had a history of watching the pilot flame in the gas heater for hours and hours. He recounted in rote fashion the damage that setting fires can have on property and also the danger to others. He also said that he would not engage in fire-setting again. However, despite these statements he committed arson again in order that he could watch the ‘fascinating flickering of flames’. In court, Mr. BD was considered fit to plead and it was recommended in a psychiatric report that there be a follow-up with psychiatric and other community support services. A non-custodial disposition was given in this case.

In the review by Allely (2019) of the cases in the literature of individuals with ASD who engaged in fire-setting or were convicted of arson, what was evident in all of the cases outlined in the papers was the ASD symptomology which contributed in various degrees to the behaviour including: an impaired ability to understand and appreciate the possible consequences or harm of setting fires(such as damage to property, possible injury or death); fire-setting being viewed as the only way to solve problems; impaired victim empathy and having a preoccupation and special interest in fire and fire-setting (which is perhaps the most important or common factor). Indeed, Freckelton and List (2009) emphasised that an obsessive preoccupation and interest with ‘flames, cinders, colours, and heat’ is common in individuals with ASD convicted of arson rather than it being amalicious intention to cause property damage or harm to others. It was also highlighted by McEwan and Freckelton (2011) that studies suggest that in most fire-setters there is no intention to kill or cause any harm to other people. Instead, it is the fire itself which provides a psychological function for these individuals. Therefore, it has been strongly advocated that conventional punishment and retribution may not be appropriate with such individuals as it would do little to stop them thinking or fantasising about or setting fires – particularly for those individuals with ASD who have a preoccupation or fascination with a flickering flame, for example (Freckelton, 2011; McEwan & Freckelton, 2011).

The findings from the five empirical studies which were identified in the review by Allely (2019) all suggest that there are ASD symptomologies which may contribute to arson or fire-setting behaviour. For instance, in the study by Siponmaa and colleagues (2001) 126 young people referred for forensic psychiatric examination were studied. Interestingly, they found that the diagnoses of atypical autistic disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome were more prevalent in the arson group compared to any other of the crime groupings.A total of 16 individuals in the sample had committed arson. Of this group of 16 arsonists, 10 (63%) had a typical autistic disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome. These findings support the notion that arson may be more specifically associated to behaviours which are found in individuals with ASD.

Lastly, the review drew attention to two useful measures which were developed by Gannon and Barrowcliffe (2012). The two measures were the Fire Setting Scale and the Fire Proclivity Scale. These measures were developed by Gannon and Barrowcliffe in order to examine the antisocial and fire interest factors which are related with fire-setters. It would also explore the propensity of fire-setters to be attracted or fascinated with, aroused by and behaviourally inclined to engage in fire-setting behaviour. Allely (2019) recommends in the review that both of these measures may be usefully applied with individuals who are charged with arson or have been found to be engaging in fire-setting, particularly individuals with ASD. It would help identify their motivations and thinking patterns behind their involvement in fire-setting. Future work exploring the usefulness of these measures with individuals with ASD is needed. For instance, overall, do individuals with ASD who engage in fire-setting score differently on such measures compared to individuals who do not have an ASD who also engage in this same behaviour? Such knowledge might help inform the development of appropriate assessment and treatment for such individuals. There is also the potential for their use as part of risk assessment for the individual. In sum, what this blog highlights is that there is a very real need for additional research in exploring arson and ASD. Such research will help to increase the awareness and understanding of how ASD symptomology can contribute to arson and fire-setting which is useful knowledge within both a legal and clinical context.

[This is a blog. The purpose of the blog is to provide information and raise awareness concerning important issues. All views and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily shared by the GNC.]