Monday, July 23, 2012

Reckless Speculation

Dylan Byers reports at Politico about some reckless speculation by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough:
"You don't want to generalize," MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said today before saying that James Holmes, the suspected Aurora, Colo., shooter, was "on the autism scale."
"As soon as I hear about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society -- it happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale," said Scarborough, whose son has Asperger's syndrome. "I don't know if that's the case here, but it happens more often than not. People that can walk around in society, they can function on college campuses -- they can even excel on college campuses -- but are socially disconnected."
No, we do not know whether the suspect is on the spectrum, and until there is some evidence, it is foolish even to mention the topic.  Such comments may lead the general public to connect autism with violent behavior.

This is not the first such incident.  Five years ago, after the massacre at Virginia Tech, I wrote at the Political Mavens blog:

News reports have suggested that the Virginia Tech shooter was autistic.Reporters should be cautious about such speculation. 
First, without proper context, such stories may lead readers to the false generalization that autistic people are violent.
Second, there is reason to doubt that Cho was autistic in the first place. He learned English as a second language — and learned it well enough to major in the subject in college. Autistic people usually have great difficulty with speech and language. They can often overcome this problem, but it takes years of therapy.If news accounts are accurate, Cho had no such therapy.

The speculation stems from accounts of Cho’s coldness. That’s stereotyping. Many autistic people are cheerful and affectionate. Other disorders could account for his behavior.
A few months later, I followed up:
A few months ago in this space, I cautioned against speculation that Virginia Tech killer Seung Hui Cho was autistic.  Indeed, it now turns out that he had an entirely different problem, a social anxiety disorder involving “selective mutism.”  Clinical psychologist Robert Schum told The Washington Post: ““He was not autistic.”

Why dwell on the point?  Autistic people have enough problems without media speculation linking them to mass murder. Trust me on that.