Autism: The Wrong Answer to the Question of Mass Murder.

I was previously reluctant to deal with this topic on my blog; I didn’t want to re-share the claim that there was a link between autism and mass shootings, by even repeating the idea in a public forum. I had hoped that being geographically distanced from the country’s TV show that originated the claim, would mean it wouldn’t be heard or need to be dealt with here. But I’ve changed my mind after reading a pained post by a friend, about how the purported link between autism and mass murder is affecting her and her friends’ lives. I’ve come to the view that if my post is the first some people hear of the recently claimed link, then at least they hear it in the context of a rebuttal and refutation of the claim.

What I am talking about, is the publically broadcasted claim by an American morning show host, Joe Scarborough, on “Morning Joe.” Despite being a father of a child with Aspergers – someone who should know better – he shared the view that there is a link between autism and the mass shootings that so appal and frighten the public. He stated “You have these people that are somewhere, I believe, probably on the autism scale, I don’t know if that’s the case here, but it happens more often than not…” Despite the fact that there is no evidence for such a link, either in general or more specifically for James Holmes, some of the public seem to have treated the mere statement of it by a show host as evidence in itself.

We’re human. We seek patterns to answer questions that confuse and scare us. Mass shooting confuse and scare us. But fixating on the wrong answer – and autism is, the wrong answer – does not help. In fact, it harms. Significantly. What does help, is to recognise that mass shootings are not all of the same kind, so to try to paint all mass shooters with the same brush is already to make an error, as so excellently pointed out by Dave Cullen: “Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn’t exist.” As he goes on to explain, “researchers find that aside from terrorism, most of these mass murders are committed by criminals who fall into three groups: psychopaths, the delusionally insane, and the suicidally depressed.” Note that in his article he references actual research, facts and figures, not some vague “feeling” about what might be behind this terrible crime.

In another article, dated the 21st of July, Cullen explicitly warns against jumping to conclusions after these events: “You’ve been bombarded with ‘facts’ and opinions about James Holmes’s motives. You have probably expressed your opinion on why he did it. You are probably wrong.” Only two days later, on July 23rd, Joe Scarborough made his own addition to the pile of badly misinformed opinions. Only his were more than about “loners” or other misapplied stereotypes; his tarnished a highly vulnerable and hugely diverse group of people, who already suffer under the public’s misunderstandings and resulting ill-treatment.

I can see where people who link autism and mass shooters, may have made a very simplistic and confused error: They take inflated stereotypes of autistic people – that they lack a capacity for empathy and keep to themselves for instance – then match that to the also erroneous stereotypes of mass shooters. Throw in the drive to have some all-encompassing explanation for the act, and it’s not hard to see why they’ve gone so wrong. That doesn’t make it forgivable though, when the person – when Joe Scarborough – refuses to offer up a comprehensive apology and retraction, and the organisation that aired the piece doesn’t do it either. Ignorance that needs correcting is one thing, refusing to acknowledge that ignorance and its dangerous outcomes after it’s being pointed out to you by those with relevant expertise, is quite another.

Whether someone who is a mass shooter, is also on the autism spectrum, is a separate question: Their autism or not having autism, is not pre-determined by the act they performed. I can’t say autistic people are never going to fit into one of those three categories Cullen outlines, but none of those categories are synonymous with autism. Autistic people are not all psychopaths or delusionally insane or suicidally depressed, and even if a few of them are (as I suppose must be possible), that doesn’t mean they’re destined for mass murder.  To treat autistic people like social outcasts, as an unwanted category of people because of one unqualified man’s rather ridiculous theory, is evidence of not just a lack of empathy, but a lack of independent thought too. It reflects poorly on those who hold to such a view, and even more so on those who encourage others to think and feel the same.

Why James Holmes did what he did, is yet to be determined, though from what I understand it looks like he’s going to fit in the “sadistic psychopath” category. In the search for logic in the madness, people are understandably going to keep sharing their theories and insights. When those theories lead to further tragedy – to the extreme and unwarranted stigmatizing of a large and innocent group of people – more damage is heaped upon an existing disaster. There is no justice in that, for anyone.

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12 Responses to Autism: The Wrong Answer to the Question of Mass Murder.

  1. Janine says:

    I live with AS and my son is also on the spectrum. Recently I worked with a family with a child on the spectrum. They told me their son’s special needs teacher said their child could grow up to be a mass murderer. I never got over that and thought it was a one off until I met another family who were told by a professional that their son could turn out to be the same. I asked other parents and it appeared to be a theme. What is wrong with the world? People live diffently and therefore it makes them a target? My son, myself included, have a huge capacity for love and our empathy for people is greater, I think, than people not on the spectrum. In fact when people describe me they always include things like kind, compassionate and friendly etc. The same for my son. When a murderer is caught and appears normal, which is probably 99% of the time. No one says, “oh look another normal person murdering again, what can we do about it”. It’s not people with autism we have to worry about, rather the arrogant who view their way of behaviour to be superior to everyone else’s.

  2. PJ says:

    Beautifully written. This has been on my mind ever since the shootings and I have spent many hours understanding how and why people blame autistics for criminal acts they’re not prone to. In my mind, all things being equal, neurotypicals talk disability but they’re really thinking psychiatric disorder which is something they understand and I think it takes those of us on the autism spectrum, et al who are already bilingual as it were to set the record straight. Call me a simpleton but I organize all the seperate issues this way: I see a bell curve of neurotypicals of varying degrees in the middle, psychiatric disorders ending in severe pathologies extending to the left, and disabilty issues of various degrees stretching out to the right and ending in the most severe cases. And before neurotypicals can speak to empathy issues I think they have to be able to discuss the different kinds and be able to state what their strengths/weaknesses/imbalances are – especially since they seem so capable and willing to withhold and/or direct it for their own benefit, something I have always found truly disturbing. Lastly, Joe Scarborough is from my ultra-conservative home town so his shallow point of view doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    • Thanks for your comment and for for sharing your insights PJ.

    • Alicia says:

      I think some of your points of view need to be more informed, psychiatric disabilities and autism are not that different, there are a lot of similarities, they are both just different kind of disabilities manifested in the mind, one kind neurological and the others might be neurological or psychological, it doesn’t matter what kind people are thinking about since we all deserve respect.

  3. Alicia says:

    I think that your post is defending autism well but very closely to stigmatizing another group, we need to be careful when talking about psychiatric disorders like this, mental illness are just another kind of disability, there is even more stigma about it. Considering the number of victims of violence that are mentally ill and the fact the most criminals are sane I think any connection between crimes and any category of mental illness should be told very carefully to avoid feeding the stigma and the abuse we suffer. Autism is not a mental illness but there are no differences in how we should talk about the two, there are a lot of similarities and the violence both groups suffer is similar, many autistic people are in both categories.
    Many of those tragedies are caused by people who want revenge or have some kind of motivation, the same way wars are made by sane people there is no reason to avoid thinkind terrible things can be done by completely normal people. Madness is not evil. We need to fight ableism against all neurodivergences. Just like autistic people can sometimes commit crimes, mentally ill people can too but not because of the conditions, both groups also face a lack of power in society so anything said about them increases prejudice, everything is blamed on those characteristics that make them abnormal to society, differently from other groups, for example criminals are more frequently men and men are considered to be more violent than other genders but we don’t think all men are dangerous or connect being male to being dangerous, that group has power to avoid this, except if another characteristic is available to blame, like being black or autistic, so when you say mass murder and talk about psychopaths, insanity, madness, suicidal depressions and things like this without a comment and doesn’t even mention the fact that normal people can be dangerous and do terrible things you are increasing to the oppression of neurodivergent people, especially mentally ill people that are victims like autistic people after that statement that made us more vulnerable. I do believe to bring respect towards all different kind of minds is better, strangers that see someone acting different don’t stop to think if it’s autism or mental illness, they judge the same, if both are respected it wouldn’t matter.

    • I understand your concerns, and share them to an extent, but my post merely cites what researchers have told us, I do not see that in sharing those facts that I have come close at all to stigmatising any other groups. In fact, I think if you read my second-to-last paragraph more carefully, you will see that I have tried to be sensitive to your concerns. You must understand that the point of my post is to refute the misinformation currently being used to viciously attack autistic people, it is in that context that the post was written and was intended to be read. Reading out of context will always offer up odd and unintended results.

    • Kelsey says:

      The first thought when people hear that there has been a mass shooting is “I wonder if he is autistic”.

  4. madness42 says:

    Reblogged this on madness42 and commented:
    Very well said 🙂

  5. Ashley says:

    Well said. I agree. And when I read this article by a professor in Pa. about the potential thought process of mass murders, I can see this scenario for a kid with autism who is excluded and very subtly ostracized (under the bullying radar), maybe even isolated purposefully by the autistic person’s parents as a last resort for keeping him/her out of “trouble.”

    (And who am I kidding? “Might?” I think exclusion and subtle ostracism of kids with autism are rampant.) Coupled with depression stemming from the person with autism’s awareness of how dramatically different – how much of an outsider he/she is – I could see how a person with autism who did not have early intervention could build up enough resentment and anger to commit murder. (As could a neurotypical victim of domestic violence.) The isolation and “back stage” behavior that the article refers to may be attractive to a person who is already in their own world, isolated from others.

    So I guess from the most simplistic perspective, I’m saying that bullying/exclusion – not just socially but from services that could help both parent and child – causes murders, not the diagnosis or label of the person being excluded.

    • You start off by saying “well said, I agree”, and then everything you say after that goes against both what I’ve written and what the facts and experts in this field have been saying. You might want to read it again, and rethink your stance.

    • What difference would “early intervention” do? Absolutely nothing in this case. Most victims of bullying and abuse, with autism or without, are not dangerous but actually highly empathic towards the pain of others, they might get themselves in dangerous situations but are not likely to murder.
      I wonder what were you agreeing with if what you said is the opposite.

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