Asperger syndrome is a disorder that is not synonymous with headline news; however, when one of the wealthiest men in America was standing trial for the murder of his elderly neighbor, Robert Durst was acquitted in part because of his Asperger syndrome diagnosis, which apparently explained his erratic behavior. But does a “high functioning” disorder such as Asperger syndrome really lead people to kill?
During Durst’s 2003 trial in Galveston, TX, psychiatrist Dr. Milton Altschuler says he met with Durst almost on a weekly basis and spent more than 70 hours examining him. His conclusion: Durst suffers from a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger syndrome is a fairly uncommon disorder that leaves a person’s intellect intact but limits their ability to interact socially. Studies of children with Asperger syndrome suggest that their problems with socialization and communication continue into adulthood.
“Emotion is very difficult to him. He doesn’t know what happy is,” says Altschuler. “He can feel it, but almost as if he were feeling it as we would feel fingers through a glove. It’s very dulled, at best, to him…His whole life’s history is so compatible with a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder.”
Robert Durst’s troubles began when he tragically lost his mother at 7. By 10, Durst was such an angry child that a family doctor wrote that he might be schizophrenic. But Altschuler says the doctor was simply seeing the signs of Asperger syndrome.
“Certainly, children who are somewhat autistic, who have Asperger’s, do have a great deal of anger. Because they are really being frustrated a great deal,” says Altschuler.
Social interactions can seem confusing and overwhelming to individuals with Asperger syndrome. Difficulties in seeing things from another person’s perspective can make it extremely difficult to predict or understand the actions of others. They may not pick up on what is or isn’t appropriate in a particular situation. However, not all individuals with Asperger syndrome display all of these behaviors. The challenges presented by Asperger syndrome are often accompanied by unique gifts, such as the ability for intense focus is a common trait.
So did Durst have an intense focus on murdering his subjects due to Asperger syndrome? Since 1982, the millionaire real-estate heir has been linked to a number of different deaths and disappearances and recently became the subject of HBO docuseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.
In the past, researchers have examined connections between higher-functioning autism spectrum disorders (hfASDs) and criminal activity and found that those with hfASDs have an overrepresentation in the criminal population. So it’s possible that many factors have played into Durst’s erratic and dangerous behavior—including the stress bearing down on him. However, Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychoanalyst who teaches clinical psychiatry, has followed Robert Durst’s story in the media and says, “I haven’t examined him myself, but I can say that autism is not associated with violent behavior.” Saltz explained that sociopaths tend to be loners, angry, and disenfranchised. She also says, that they struggle to feel empathy, often disregard social norms and rules, and they often even enjoy doing the wrong thing.
Indeed, Durst could suffer from a wide array of disorders: autism, psychopathy, schizophrenia, and dementia to name a few. Many of these can be treated, according to Saltz: “With someone with autism, you could help them develop some coping skills and social skills, with schizophrenia, people with delusions can be treated.” With his fate now in the hands of the justice system, prison could be where Durst ends up.
On March 14, 2015, Durst was rearrested in New Orleans on a first-degree murder warrant signed by a Los Angeles judge. If convicted in California for the murder of Susan Berman, Durst could face the death penalty for “special circumstances of murder of a witness and lying in wait.”
For more information and resources, please see the Asperger Syndrome Tool Kit for families on Autism Speak’s website.