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.