Some news coverage in the last 48 hours has mentioned autism in the context of the tragedy in Connecticut, particularly referencing shooter Adam Lanza’s possible Asperger’s or “high-functioning” autism. Talking heads have brought up the “empathy” factor when discussing autism, and I’d like to set some of the record on that straight.
Empathic ability comes in two forms. One is the social ability to recognize the emotion someone is feeling by following social cues, subtle vocal fluctuations, and other nonverbal communications. Psychopaths, for example, might be quite good at reading people, at applying this cognitive empathy and then possibly exploiting it. Autistic people, on the other hand, generally tend not to be that great at this kind of recognition in non-autistic people. After all, the hallmark of autism is difficulty navigating this territory and registering the meaning of a nonverbal language that is unfamiliar to them. Worth noting, non-autistic people also seem to struggle with reading the nonverbal communication of autistic people. It can also be difficult for autistic people to automatically place themselves situationally in the other person’s shoes and intuit the emotion the other person feels, although again, non-autistic people seem to struggle to do this for autistics. Autism does not, however, preclude a person from understanding a clear communication about emotion.
The other form of empathy follows on the recognition of the emotion, whether the message comes through verbally or nonverbally, intuitively or not. That’s the form in which you not only can intellectualize the person’s emotion but also can internalize and feel what they are feeling, known as emotional empathy. The gap for psychopaths comes in here: They seem to lack this emotional empathy. But whatever deficits autism might carry in terms of recognition, it makes up for in terms of the shared feeling. My experience has been that once an autistic becomes aware of the other person’s emotion, the feeling comes without a social construct, naked and in full, unmodulated. Certainly, the expression of their feeling can be more intense. Research shows that people with Asperger’s are not that great at cognitive empathy but that their emotional empathy does not differ from people without Asperger’s, whereas children with conduct disorder show the reverse pattern.
My 11-year-old son is diagnosed with Asperger’s, soon to be simply “autism,” thanks to impending changes in the DSM-5. He is a rowdy giant of an 11-year-old who loves tumbling play with his brothers, but his spirit couldn’t be more gentle. When he finds a spider in the house, he carefully gathers it in a tissue and places it outside, alive. He can’t bear to watch people crack tree nuts, like pecans, because being something of a tree nut himself, he feels pain on behalf of the nuts. He is so attuned to all of my nonverbal communication that he will recognize and respond to a fluctuation in my mood faster than anyone else in our house, including my husband.
He knows about the Dec. 14 shootings in Connecticut. When he learned about them, his first response was to turn away in the chair where he was sitting, drooping his head over the back. He stayed that way for many long minutes, quiet and still. When he turned around again, my child who rarely, rarely cries had tears in his eyes. And then, his first urgent concern: that we break from homeschooling and go get his brother, our youngest son and in first grade, from school … now. And as we drove to the school to pick up his brother, whom I badly wanted to see and hug and hear, my oldest, autistic son voiced what I’d already decided: “Let’s not tell him what happened. That’s not something he needs to know. It would make him too anxious and scared.” Perspective-taking and empathy, you see.
Planned, social violence is not a feature of autism. Indeed, autistic people are far more likely to have violence done against them than to do violence to others. No one knows as of this writing what drove the Connecticut shooter to kill 20 children and 7 adults, point blank, although obvious candidates are rage, hate, a huge grudge against humanity, and some triggering event. But if he turns out to have been someone on the spectrum, I’d like to remind everyone that autism is not an explanatory factor in his actions. And that autistic people like my son are fully, fully capable of empathizing with those who were the target of them.