Why people with Asperger’s don’t commit school shootings


Student prayer vigil in Parkland (Photo: Anthony Causi)

So it’s happened again like we knew it would. Another “lone wolf” kid shot up a school and killed a number of people. Also like we know already, thoughts and prayers will be offered, but oversight of the weapons industry is utterly off the table. And, of course, people with mental illnesses or neurological conditions are scapegoated and targeted.

Mass killers such as Eric Harris (Columbine) and Adam Lanza (Newtown) have been suspected of being on the autism spectrum, but those assertions reveal a vast ignorance of the defining characteristics of autistic people. The biggest myth about us is that we lack empathy. This perception is due to the difficulty neurotypical researchers have seeing the world through our minds. A neurotypical observer may presume that we lack concern for others because the process of extrapolating the thought processes of others is impaired in us. The reluctance of clinicians to listen to what we tell them about ourselves exacerbates this. This “lack of empathy” is explained by a lack of Theory of Mind, and not maliciousness. We are overwhelmed by the suffering of others and that we possess an excess of empathy for those in distress. SO much so that we are also distressed, and “shut down” which simply appears to be cold.

A New York Times article, “The Myth of the Autistic Shooter,” states:

Whatever anyone’s particular constellation of symptoms may be, however, autism is not associated with brutality. Failing to intuit certain aspects of other people’s inner experience does not equate to disdain for human life. The wish to hurt others is tied not to autism but to psychopathy, which manifests in a deficiency or absence of empathy and remorse . . . Tarring the autistic community in this manner — like presuming that most black people are thieves or that most Muslims are terrorists — is an insidious form of profiling. It exacerbates the tendency for people with autism to be excluded, teased and assaulted in childhood and adulthood.

The definition of psychopathy is a “a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy, impaired remorse, bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits.” These traits can lead to violence in some cases, but not all. Psychopathy is a spectrum as well and some people on it may not feel emotion for other people, but manage to stay out of trouble. For instance, an obscenely high number of psychopaths are corporate CEOs, lawyers, politicians, surgeons, and media personalities – those who have found a less violent means to demonstrate ego and lack of concern for others. Psychopaths are glib, grandiose, manipulative, and lie a great deal. As David Cullen, author of the definitive history of the Columbine massacre said of psychopaths (which Eric Harris really was), “Psychopaths don’t lie to you with their mouths; they lie to you with their lives.”

They wear a mask, but it serves a different purpose than the “pretending to be normal” that autistic people frequently engage in. First of all, we aren’t all that great at pulling off our pretending – people still notice we are struggling and strange. We’re abysmal liars and it rarely occurs to us to do so. Secondly, we pretend with the purpose of having meaningful emotional relationships with other humans; psychopaths pretend so they can get something out of someone, but have no desire for emotional connection. Psychopaths are very talented at building a false persona in order to get close to people for their own plans, convenience, and gratification, but feel no remorse or even embarrassment at being caught out.

There are at least two types of empathy and it’s vital that we explain the differences and make sure the general public is aware of them: autistics lack cognitive empathy or the ability to figure out why someone is upset even though we would do anything to fix their pain so that we don’t also feel it. The kind of overwhelming empathy we feel is called affective empathy or the ability to be affected by the emotional state others. Affective empathy is exactly what psychopaths lack and autistics have way too much of.

Psychopaths have few emotions besides frustration and gratification while autistics are empaths who feel the pain of others to an excruciating degree. Functioning MRIs have been performed on the brains of clinical psychopaths as well as autistics and the primary difference is in the emotional centers, the limbic system and amygdala. Psychos show little or no activity in this part of the brain; in autistics it is overactive and operates differently. You can’t have both no activity in this part of the mind and too much simultaneously.

Therefore, autism and psychopathy are mutually exclusive. One person cannot be both.

Much of the confusion between these fundamentally different neurological condition awkward social skills (especially when young), and be prone to perseverative obsessions. We can both appear to have a “flat affect” or facial expressions that don’t match the situation. We can both have deficits in executive function. Both psychos and autistics (and a great many other people) can be solitary or weird. But correlation does not confirm causation.

Very very few people with autism may have comorbid disorders which are associated with violent behavior. Such disorders are schizophrenia, psychosis (delusional thoughts and not the same as psychopathy), and, more commonly, substance abuse disorders. I want to point out here that even those with the mental illnesses I just mentioned are rarely violent and are far far more likely to be victims of violence. There is no greater incidence of violence among autistic people than in the general population, so we really need to think extremely hard about why certain people feel that the 3.5 million-plus people on the spectrum in America are a convenient group to blame.

Unfortunately, autistic people know a great deal about being scapegoated, misinterpreted, and targeted. We are the most vulnerable people in any society, and the only gun violence we direct at others is directed at ourselves. We attempt and succeed at suicide at a phenomenal rate and access to firearms makes it much easier. The type of gun deaths we discuss the least are suicides. Over 60% of gun deaths are suicides. Let’s not forget that the police kill us with guns, too. Autistic people are prone to self-harm or lashing out when attacked or interfered with, but there is no evidence whatsoever that we commit premeditated violence on others or have malicious intent, which is the hallmark of lone wolf and terroristic violence.

I’ve known both psychopaths and autistics intimately throughout my life and no one on the autism spectrum has tried to hurt anyone to my knowledge, and, in fact, will put themselves in danger to protect others. I have one Aspie friend who would insert himself into situations when a man was publicly abusing a woman and he’d end up with a black eye more often than not. The psychopaths are more of a mixed bag.

Me myself and every other Aspie I’ve encountered online or in real life are deeply concerned with justice and fairness and would tear themselves apart if they knew they hurt someone even unintentionally. The Autism Society released a statement a few days ago attempting to clear up this gross misapprehension.

Let’s look to more promising interpretations of the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida. What we do know about him is that his social media was lousy with violent thoughts, images, and threats. He posted pictures of weapons and ammunition. He was known to abuse young women and was ordered to not come onto the school campus with a backpack before he was expelled. All the students who knew him already speculated long before the attack that he might shoot up the school. All the signs were obvious and easily accessible, but no action was taken by any of the agencies who investigated his suspicious behavior. Although he has been described by many to be “weird,” his oddness could certainly be explained by any number of mental states other than autism.

Criminal and forensic psychologists (those who interpret the mental states of criminals for the justice system) agree that for someone to become a serial killer or mass murderer there must be a “perfect storm” of issues in an individual. Cruz had lost a parent, been uprooted to another state, had latched onto white supremacist ideology, had an apparent break-up with a girl, and had been expelled from his high school three days prior to the tragedy. If he was already a budding psychopath, all it would take is a string of precipitating incidents to set him off.  A closer look at any mass shooter is always baffling and complex: no two are the same.

And of course, it was super fucking easy for him to buy a big-ass gun in Florida.

If we begin targeting, monitoring, and marginalizing every weird, lonely boy in school, we are heading down a bonafide slippery slope which leads us ever further into dystopian dilemma of the 21st century America.

There are better ways to approach gun violence and reduce it if we all put our heads together and tap into our own affective and cognitive empathy.