Over the past few weeks, I have been contacted by several people asking me to put pen to paper about the Newtown shootings, and how some say that the shooter may have had autism.
I have resisted for several reasons, the main one being that I’m not too sure what ‘yet another voice’ could contribute to this tragedy.
But as the days and now weeks roll on, and with commentaries coming thick and fast, I see autism being mentioned time and again as a possible explanation for the shooter’s motives. All up, I am left with a deep sense of unease at the misrepresentation of people with autism, and the potential ramifications of these untruths.
First, the easy stuff: the dispelling of a few myths about autism. Several autism advocates have written terrific pieces on this, and so I will paraphrase and link to them here.
• People with autism don’t have empathy: This is breath-takingly incorrect. Empathy comes in two forms – cognitive empathy (ability to recognize others’ emotions), and emotional empathy (ability to feel others’ emotions once that emotion has been recognised). Whereas psychopaths are proposed to have good cognitive but poor emotional empathy, science has shown the reverse is true for people with autism: once they understand what a person is feeling, people with autism are often intensely empathetic. See here for a good commentary on this.
• People with autism are violent: On occasions, some people with autism exhibit aggressive behaviour, which is typically borne out of a difficulty expressing themselves, or sensory sensitivities. There is not one shred of evidence (none!) that people with autism are more likely, or indeed have ever, undertaken a planned and intentional act of violence against others. See here for more information.
• People with autism are more likely to commit crimes: Again, this is completely incorrect. A recent review of all of the scientific literature in this area concluded: “Currently, there is still no body of evidence to suppose that people with ASD are more prone to commit offences than anyone else.” It can’t be written any clearer than that.
When tragedies such as Newtown occur, there is an overwhelming desire for us to search for that most human of creations: a scapegoat. Often, the hard evidence – such as that which I present above – is not enough to overwhelm the collective grief.
We can all understand this, as we all know grief.
But we must also understand this: Autism is not a play-thing. It is not a term that can be inserted into column inches without thought of consequence. These are real people with real lives, who are no less human, and certainly no more capable of atrocity, than you or me. To intimate otherwise is to slight your fellow human beings - those who battle (and thrive with) autism every day.
In truth, people don’t do bad things because they are somehow less than human. People do bad things precisely because they are human. We are all capable of doing things that are far outside of our normal character. This is the human condition: wondrous, astonishing, extraordinary…and flawed.
The shooter at Newtown may have had autism, and he certainly had flaws. But these flaws were not because he had autism; they were because he was human.
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