The Isla Vista Rampage


“Nothing good ever comes of violence.” – Martin Luther



Yet another senseless tragedy befalls our community.  And yet another day, week, and likely months to come of asking the question —  Why?  It has been eight days now since 22-year old Elliot Rodger wantonly murdered six people in Isla Vista before ultimately taking his own life.  It has been reported that Rodger had been diagnosed at a young age as someone with very high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome.  Let me be absolutely clear – people as a whole who suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome do not kill.  They, as a group, are not murderers.  In fact, statistically, people who suffer from this disorder are more likely to be victims of violence than to ever commit it themselves.


Fortunately, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and even the most severely disturbed psychiatric patients rarely threaten, let alone take, the lives of others.  Nonetheless, when random acts of senseless violence are perpetrated by the mentally ill it is important to try and understand how such brutality can spew forth in the world of the mentally ill.  It is vitally important to realize that serious mental disorders have the ability to make it so that a person believes things that are not true, are not grounded in reality, and therefore these delusions (fixed false beliefs) can direct their behaviors in seemingly senseless and random ways.


Asperger’s Syndrome (or Asperger’s Disorder), named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, is a neurobiological developmental disorder within the classification of Autism Spectrum Disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and socialize effectively.  In the mid-1940’s Dr. Asperger observed children in his practice who had significant challenges with social integration. And, although they appeared to have normal intelligence, they lacked nonverbal communication skills, were physically gawky, and notably unable to demonstrate empathy with their peers.  Their speech was oftentimes overly formal, and most had a tendency to over-focus, an almost all-absorbing attention, on a single topic.  Dr. Asperger initially termed the condition he observed as “autistic psychopathy”, and identified it as a character disorder marked by social isolation.


Now days the term “autism spectrum” is used when referring to a range of developmental disabilities that includes autism, in addition to other disorders with related characteristics, such as Asperger’s.  As when first observed by Dr. Apserger, most will demonstrate limited, oftentimes singular, and repetitive patterns of interests and behaviors, often exhibiting social awkwardness, and an all-consuming interest in specific topics.  Many will also demonstrate an unusual use of language and physical awkwardness, and, almost all suffer from notable social isolation.

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome do not have the delays in the development of language skills seen with the more severe forms of autism spectrum disorders.  They may however demonstrate a speech pattern that has peculiar inflection, a lack of rhythm, and/or a monotone pitch.  They often lack the ability to adjust the volume of their voice to appropriately match their environment.  Also, unlike those with autism where there is a significant withdrawal from the world around them, children with Asperger’s are most often socially isolated because of their very narrow interests and lack of the normal give-and-take of social interactions.   Early on in childhood many kids with Asperger’s may be very active, and then find themselves struggling with depression and/or anxiety by the time they reach their adolescence.


The more common signs and symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome include:

  • An obsessive interest in one or two specific, narrow topics to the exclusion of any other Children with Asperger’s Syndrome will attempt to acquire huge amounts of information about their topic of interest and will talk non-stop about it.  However, the conversation may often appear to be nothing more than random facts without any meaningful point.
  • Often engaging in exhaustive one-sided conversations without being aware that the listener may be uninterested or trying to alter the subject — They often lack the ability to adjust the volume of their voice to match their surroundings, speaking in an unusually fast and somewhat monotonous voice, and not being able to recognize the listener’s reactions, such as their need for privacy, ‘personal space’, or desire to leave.
  • Appearing to be unable to empathize with, understand, or be sensitive to other’s feelings – Possibly the most challenging limitation of Asperger’s Syndrome is their difficulty in demonstrating emotional (and social) give-and-take, a most basic element of social interaction.
  • Difficulty in understanding humor
  • Poor or clumsy physical coordination – They often have a history of delays in motor skills development (such as walking, catching, climbing, riding a bike, etc.).
  • Little or no interest in forming friendships


I did not know Elliot Rodger, never met him, and only know of the carnage he inflicted, and the obvious torment he suffered, by what I have read and heard in the various media outlets.  Yet, if any of young Mr. Rodger’s psychotic rants were even remotely related to his Asperger’s Syndrome it would be his tremendous sense of isolation, and his singular focus on the delusion that it was “the world” that created the emotional pain which his perceived isolation engendered.  His video tirades and lengthy written manifesto are filled with expressions of rage and rejection.  Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, who gunned down thirty-two people before killing himself, left behind similar expressions in his taped manifesto.  A lack of inclusion in what is perceived to be a normal part of adolescent and young adult life seems to be a common theme in these types of rampages. These perceptions could be part of a mental illness, but the beliefs that drive the desires are largely social constructs.


There is growing evidence that when our need for social relationships is not met we fall apart mentally and, in some ways, even physically.  Friendship, social contact and interaction are needed for humans to survive.  We have found that human beings have a fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships.  We are truly social animals, functioning best when this social need is met, and we are thereby more able to meet the many daily challenges we face in life.


A notable lack of close friends and broader social contact generally bring about severe emotional discomfort.  We literally feel the emptiness; the loneliness; the isolation; and this emptiness continuously eats away at our emotional well-being.  Chronic loneliness and social isolation is a significant marker of mental maladjustment.  In young people this lack of social connectedness can set in motion a cascade of problems whereby the individual takes on, in his/her own mind, the status of “outcast” and develops an array of antisocial behaviors based upon this belief.


Loneliness further destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is much less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping, and more time awake ruminating about their perceived role as an “outcast”.  Such sleep deprivation in an already psychologically compromised individual can lead to even further development of severe antisocial/psychopathic symptoms.


We are built for social contact. There are serious, and sadly in this case life-threatening, consequences when we do not get enough.  When we are isolated and feeling cast out by the world around us many will simply fall off the tracks psychologically.  Which appears to be what happened in this incredibly heartbreaking case.


This tragic event, this absolute waste of beautiful and precious life, does not in any way define the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.  What it does define is how one very disturbed and deeply pained individual, feeling thrown into the self-deluded depths of isolation and despair as a result of his colossal narcissism being so intensely injured, can lay waste to the lives of so many innocents, and to a community as a whole.


My thoughts and prayers are with those who have been lost, and those whose lives will forever be changed as a result of this tragedy.




Glenn E. Miller, M.D. is a Board Certified Psychiatrist.  Educated as a pharmacist, physician and psychiatrist Dr. Miller has been in private practice in Santa Barbara for more than twenty years.  Dr. Miller is co-author of Ancient Herbs, Modern Medicine: Improving Your Health by Combining Chinese Herbal Medicine and Western Medicine.  Healthy Mind – Healthy Future runs on Saturdays.  Opinions in the column are Dr. Miller’s and not necessarily those of this newspaper.  Send questions or topics you would like covered to