Emily Willingham joins the pushback against the linkage between autism and the tragedy in Connecticut:
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.
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.At The Atlantic, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, MD, writes:
Autism is a disorder characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive and restrictive behaviors and interests. It is currently estimated to affect 1 in 88 children born in America. Diagnosis is usually made between ages 2 and 6. While children with severe autism can have violent outbursts, there is no known link between autism and premeditated violence.