UK United Kingdom

Not autistic, but human

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.

Click here if you would like to be on the mailing list for this column.

Join the conversation

16 Comments sorted by

  1. Firozali A.Mulla


    They are forced to do the bad and evil as they lack cash. What do the human crave for most? Cash. Give then they are happy . Deprive these, they go violent and will kill , maim and go nuts . Did you read the rape vase in India 6 people raped the medical students? CCTV caught the scene, the men were apprehended. The case was on all TVs . Now if the rich were to be there, they would have gone to the night clubs and have the dance and girls as they can afford the huge taste to satisfy the needs . The cashless go bizarre and do things in lust and lose the less they have . This is the typical human whose wants are not met. I defer to the above I thank you. Rich do not succumb to the atrocities of these sorts . I thank you FirozaliA.Mulla DBA

    1. Kate Squires

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Firozali A.Mulla

      Hi Dr Mulla,
      Andrew Luster (rapist), Lyle and Erik Menendez, Du Pont family, Dana Ewell, T. Cullen Davis, O.J Simpson ... just a handful of rather rich people that have murdered others for personal gain or pure human depravity.

    2. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Firozali A.Mulla

      "The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread." -- Anatole France

      In fact wealthy people are quite as likely to commit sexual crimes or to steal as the poor. They are, however, less likely to dirty their hands with direct physical violence in the process, and are far better able to shield themselves from the consequences.

    3. CH Soames


      In reply to Firozali A.Mulla

      Such a line of reasoning at this point in the development of our society's collective wisdom is scarcely to be believed. Especially in this forum. If men are not given cash and women they will as a direct consequence kill and rape?? Not to enter the murky labyrinths of the emotive problem of determinism vs free will, neither any apprehension of some perception of self-control nor of personal responsibility seem to factor into this person's thinking.
      Such a thought process at this point in the…

      Read more
  2. Hilde Rombout


    Thank you for your explanations about autism. Having a child with an autistic condition, i am grateful for not falling for the trap of blaming autism for this heinous crime..
    I agree that people do bad things because they are human and not at all because they are poor as F. A Mulla argues. If he were correct, would that mean that rich people never do "bad" things? The evidence would not support that theory. Or that all poor people do "bad" things because they are poor? Does not make sense to me…

    Read more
    1. Firozali A.Mulla


      In reply to Hilde Rombout

      Mr HIDE I love your attitude at 67 I am on the youths I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

  3. Joanne Graham

    Admininstration Officer

    I am compelled to respond to Dr Mulla's comment "Rich do not succumb to atrocities of these sorts". Perhaps not. They use more devious means and destroy people's lives by robbing them of their dignity while emptying their purses. It may not be as evident as mass shooting nor as bloody, but still as devastating.

    We are ALL capable of evil deeds, Dr Mulla, no matter what our financial status may be.

    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Joanne Graham

      Well said Joanne.

      Dr Mulla your comments reveal a naivety that is not helpful. Please take a look around at the world more closely - poor people actually donate a proportionally higher part of the income than do the wealthy. The point of this article is to give pause before making assumptions about people whether they have an illness such as autism or are 'different' from those who hold most power.

  4. Katia Haines

    logged in via email

    Another spectacularly well written article, Dr. Whitehouse :) Will certianly be sharing this.

  5. Bob Buckley

    ASD advocate

    It appears that the alleged killer was assessed and it was determined that he did not have autism. So the media decided to vilify people with autism spectrum disorders anyway ... is it just because they can or do they must believe that it sells papers. I don't see the media reporting that he may have been bullied and/or ostracised; these may have contributed.
    Draft law in Australia (see will not protect vulnerable people generally from vilification ... it only limits racial vilification. The effect of such law is to promote vilification of people with disabilities.

  6. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Thanks Andrew - myths about autism and Asperger's need this kind of unequivocal and evidence-based debunking.

  7. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Good line isn't it - "guns don't kill people - kids with autism kill people"? Or folks with blue eyes, or brown skin, or funny spanish names ... anything, anyone but the hideous truth.

    No evidence necessary - or available. It is sufficient that you be different - that you cannot be "one of us" and the slightest suggestion of difference - any difference - is enough to show that only the odd and the intellectually frail are to blame. That "we" are all OK.

    But "we" know that's not true. And it makes "us" afraid. We need to defend ourselves from those folks with blue eyes... they're everywhere.

    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Top o' the mornin' Mr O

      Sometimes I wonder if we weren't separated at birth, given how alike our thinking (see my comment below).

      Although I do have blues eyes...

    2. account deleted

      logged in via email

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      "Sometimes I wonder if we weren't separated at birth, given how alike our thinking"

      Talk about damning with faint praise...

  8. Claire Sinclair

    Inclusion Teacher

    A great column as usual. We need to spread a greater understanding of what Autism looks like and 'humanise' people with Autism. If you happened to see the documentary 'Louis Theroux: Extreme Love with Autism' last night on ABC 2 I think this type of program has the potential to do this. Louis was obviously 'daunted' by the behaviours he was confronted with but still consistently mustered up the courage to communicate with each child and attempt to understand their reactions. I'm not sure I was comfortable…

    Read more