In The Politics of Autism, I write:
There is no evidence linking autism to planned violence, but in recent years, mass shootings by young men have led commentators in the mainstream media and on the Internet to suggest such a connection. After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, for instance, news reports said that the shooter was on the spectrum. The speculation made little sense to anyone who understood autism. Whereas autistic people have language delays and deficits, the killer had learned English as a second language — and learned it well enough to major in the subject in college. Later on, it turned out that he had an entirely different problem, a social anxiety disorder. Adam Lanza, who committed the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, may have had an Asperger’s diagnosis, but his father emphasized that his behavior stemmed from the psychiatric illnesses that he also had. Nevertheless, the media speculated about Lanza’s place on the spectrum, which worried autism parents. One mother of an autistic child wrote: “This is the first time I'm truly afraid for him. Afraid of what may happen to my son with autism at the hands of a stranger; a stranger who has chosen to buy into the media-fueled misinformation that individuals diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are dangerous and capable of horrendous acts of terror and violence.”
The lawyer for a Capitol insurrectionist is blaming autism.
As someone who is autistic — and having spent the last few years researching and writing a book about autism — I can say that these rationales are unequivocally (to quote the president) a bunch of malarkey.
While it is true that autism makes social interactions difficult — in particular, it often makes it difficult to read other people’s nonverbal cues, on which so much of our social understandings are predicated — having some difficulties with social interactions is not in and of itself an incubator or predictor of violence toward others. There are plenty of autistic people who have never gotten involved in a violent insurrection against our democracy; there are lots of autistic people who have never committed a mass murder; and there are many autistic people who have trouble dating who have never raped anyone.
As autistic writer Zack Budryk (a former colleague) has written, plenty of autistic people have a strong sense of right and wrong, which governs the way we live our lives; being autistic doesn’t mean you don’t know the difference.
Saying that autism is why Chansley — or any of a myriad of other bad actors — committed terrible actions on Jan. 6 essentially argues that autism alone makes them (and any of us) prone to acts of aggression and therefore we are unprepared or unfit for democracy.
But what these lawyers hope will be a means of liberating their clients adds to the stigma that essentially imprisons other autistic people who do not conduct themselves in a manner requiring legal representation before a criminal court.
Autism is never the sole reason people commit bad acts — or good ones — and one autistic person’s actions aren’t characteristic of the entire gamut of autistic people. We are just people — sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes a combination of both. One would think neurotypical people, who claim to have superior powers of perception in personal interactions, would be able to see that more clearly than we do.