Learning Disability and Serious Crime - Arson


This review paper follows on from a previous review of the literature with regard to learning disability and murder (Read, S. 2008). This paper, in turn, examines the relationship, if any, between learning disability and fire setting. The approach taken in both these papers involves the concept of Disruptive Behaviour Disorder as being the group of behaviour and personality disorders most involved in the aetiology of these criminal and anti-social behaviours. Disruptive behaviour disorders (Read, 2007) comprise: Oppositional Defiant Disorder Conduct Disorder Anti-social Personality Disorder Intermittent Explosive Disorder (DSM IVR, 2001, APA) The common characteristics of these disorders comprise aggression, irritability, over-activity, high arousal, and repetitive behaviour. In this context, perhaps we can see there is a continuum of offences. As we will show in the third paper (on Learning Disability and Sexual Offence), the sexual offences most often carried out by individuals with an intellectual disability are those of a less serious nature (for example, exhibitionism or indecent assault), than compared to the more serious sexual offence of aggravated rape. If serious crime involving individuals with a learning disability can then be graded as to gravity along a continuum from sexual offence to arson, through to murder as the most serious, then the involvement of learning disabled people becomes less as the offence becomes more serious then the involvement of learning disabled people becomes less as the offence becomes more serious. Consequently, a conclusion of the paper concerning murder was that learning disabled people are not disproportionately involved. This is not true of arson, where learning disabled people are over-represented (however, this over-representation should be treated with some caution as there may be methodological problems within studies that support this finding). This paper, as with the paper concerned with murder (Read, 2008), shows that the predominant diagnoses of arsonists are those in the group of Disruptive Behaviour Disorders. Mental illness is a minority diagnosis amongst those firesetters who suffer from learning disability. This accords well with the Review findings of Whitaker and Read (2007), who evidenced that there is little to support the notion that learning disabled people suffer disproportionately high levels of mental illness. However, behaviour and personality disorders are over-represented. The aetiology of these conduct and personality disorders is not so clear and these review papers regarding murder and arson relate the common occurrence of environmental factors in the developmental years as being of direct relevance to the offending behaviour as well as the association with learning disability which dates from birth or very early years. Such observations are seen to have import with regard to treatment which is likely to be as much supervisory, educational and psychological as it is pharmacological. Medical treatment cannot be ignored as it represents the first step in psychiatric rehabilitation, involving as it does the drug treatment of conduct and personality disorders. However other treatment modalities, importantly individually tailored, are liable to be of great importance with regard to reducing risk of repeated offending.

How to Cite

Read, F. & Read, E., (2008) “Learning Disability and Serious Crime - Arson”, Mental Health and Learning Disabilities Research and Practice 5(2). doi: https://doi.org/10.5920/mhldrp.2008.52210


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Fiona Read
Elspeth Read






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This article has been peer reviewed.

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