Could Amanda Knox Have an Autism Spectrum Disorder?

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Amanda Knox, the 23-year-old American college student who was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Italy in 2007, allegedly after an orgy gone wrong, got good news this week. Independent experts working on her ongoing appeal said that the traces of DNA used to convict Knox may have been contaminated and are “unreliable.”

With the DNA evidence excluded, the only substantiation of Knox’s guilt includes a possibly coerced confession and her bizarre behavior after being arrested. But could those two things have the same explanation? Is it possible that Knox has an underlying condition — Asperger’s syndrome, a less severe form of autism — that caused both her unusual social behavior and a gullibility that triggered a false confession?

Knox’s link to Kercher’s murder was always sketchy: for one thing, there was no physical evidence of the orgy that the prosecutor claimed led to the killing. Knox was said to have helped stab her 21-year-old roommate to death when Kercher refused to participate in sex games with Knox’s boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, then 23, and Rudy Guede, 20, an African immigrant. No other motive was ever presented.

But Guede’s bloody footprints and handprints were found at the scene, his DNA was found in Kercher’s body — and he was a prior robbery suspect known to carry a knife. The simplest and most logical view of the crime would be that Guede alone killed Kercher. And in fact, he was also convicted of the murder.

However, by the time his involvement was discovered, Knox had already confessed after hours of questioning by police, implicating herself and Sollecito. What’s more, her behavior after her arrest was bizarre and seemed callous.

In a riveting feature story on the case, Rolling Stone writer Nathaniel Rich describes how Knox’s odd actions may have led to her conviction. He writes that while at the police station with Sollecito, she did not act normally:

“Knox and Sollecito would make faces, kiss each other, while there was the body of a friend in those conditions,” said homicide chief Monica Napoleoni.

“I couldn’t help thinking how cool and calm Amanda was,” said Giacomo Silenzi, a neighbor who had been having a fling with Kercher. “Her eyes didn’t seem to show any sadness, and I remember wondering if she could have been involved.”

Officers would later complain that Knox, after sitting for hours in the stiff waiting-room chairs, had started to do cartwheels and even splits. Convinced that she was psychotic, the guards begged her to stop, explaining that such behavior was “inappropriate.” And a detective complained when he saw Knox sitting on her boyfriend’s lap. “Inappropriate,” he said.

Could this be evidence of Asperger’s? In people with the condition, odd emotional reactions and atypical responses to stress are common. Women with autism spectrum disorders tend to be better at appearing socially skilled than men do, which often leaves them undiagnosed.

Valerie Gaus is a psychologist who has worked with hundreds of autistic people and is the author of Living Well on the Spectrum. “Everything I read would be consistent with it and it could be one alternative theory for the behavior that made her seem suspicious,” says Gaus, while stressing that she has not met Knox and cannot diagnose her. “When people on the spectrum become anxious or nervous, they won’t necessarily show it through facial expressions and they may use odd behavior to regulate anxiety. You might see that in odd gestures or strange tics or body movements. If she did have it, her cartwheels might have been [her way of] trying to regulate overwhelming anxiety.”

MORE: Mind Reading: How to Live Well on the Autistic Spectrum

Rudy Simone, author of Aspergirls and herself a woman on the autism spectrum, says, “While I’m not a diagnostician and haven’t seen anything on the tapes we’ve all seen that would indicate she has Asperger’s, if she did, theoretically, the kind of behavior she displayed before, during and after her arrest would be in line with the many psychological or neurological differences [that mark] Aspergian behavior.”

Another example of “self-soothing” behavior common to autism could be Knox’s frequent loud singing, which Kercher’s sister told Rolling Stone had been annoying to the victim.

Knox’s lack of social skills, unusual reactions to emotion and lack of concern about appearance — all common in autism spectrum conditions — were clear to everyone who knew her:

“She’s a little dork who doesn’t wear matched socks,” says her best friend, Madison Paxton. …

[Sollecito said]: “I noticed that her opinions on the music were odd. … She didn’t concentrate on the emotions it provoked but only on the rhythm — slow, fast, slow.”

And, like many autistic people, Knox was highly intelligent but also extremely naïve and gullible:

“She’s the smartest person you’d ever know” but “dumb as a rock” when it comes to “street sense,” [her stepfather said]. In conversations with her friends and family, a portrait emerges of a person with a childlike innocence. She was, as her mother, Edda, puts it, “oblivious to the dark side of the world.”

“The common term we use is naïve but from a clinical perspective, what can cause that is that people on the spectrum have difficulty with perspective-taking. They have a difficult time thinking about or understanding what another person might be thinking,” says Gaus.

“We just don’t understand other people,” says Simone. “We don’t read faces. Social language is always a second language to us that we’re never particularly fluent in and alongside that is a childlike naivete.”

That can lead to gullibility because if you can’t understand the world from other people’s perspectives, you can’t recognize when they might be trying to manipulate you, or even that such a thing is possible to do. This makes people with Asperger’s particularly prone to false confessions both because they get easily overwhelmed by stress and because they don’t understand the intentions of the police.

“In my own practice, I’ve seen a fair number of young people get in trouble with the law because of naivete,” says Gaus.

Knox’s apparent penchant for casual sex, which was extensively covered by the British tabloids, can also be seen in some women on the autism spectrum. “With females on the spectrum, sometimes promiscuity is a way that you connect and they learn early on that they can get attention for being sexual. That wouldn’t be surprising,” Gaus says.

Notes Simone, “Because of our open demeanor towards others, what we see as friendly is often consider flirtatious and often misread.”

Also, Knox’s utter lack of awareness of her own beauty — detailed in the Rolling Stone story — could be a symptom. Appreciating your own good looks “involves the ability to imagine how others perceive you and people on the spectrum have problems with that,” Gaus says.

Yet another potentially telling characteristic: Knox’s desire for justice, not only for herself but for others. Rich describes how Knox would try to help strangers on the street and how she insisted on staying in Italy to help the police with the case, even after her other roommates had gotten attorneys and left the country. “A strong need for justice is common,” Gaus says.

MORE: Did Amanda Knox Get a Fair Murder Trial?

Of course, whether or not a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s would help or hurt Knox’s case is hard to say: the stigma associated with autism spectrum disorders might make her seem more suspicious, rather than less, in the eyes of some legal authorities. But Gaus believes that screening her would be appropriate and that it could help her come to terms with what happened. It could ultimately help her have a better future if she is, as seems likely, exonerated.