Aspergers and empathy

I am going to talk about my son, without his permission. I hope he does not mind.

When he was 5, he was diagnosed as Aspergers Syndrome. This means he has real trouble picking up social cues and emotional states in others. It does not mean he has no empathy or emotional states. In fact I do not know anybody who cares more about people and issues than he does. He is one of the most compassionate individuals you will ever meet. He is kind, polite and moral, despite his inability to show it in socially approved ways.

And he has been bullied persistently by students and teachers and gangs because of this difference. Once, because he had seen it on TV that you had a right to defend yourself, he showed a pocket knife, sheathed, to some bullies physically attacking him at school, for which he was suspended and the bullies merely chastised. Actual violence was condoned by that school, while an attempt to stop it, however misguided, was punished. This is the lot of the Aspie.

Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter, apparently was Aspergers so now the chattering classes (journalists and pundits) are trying to make out this is a mental health issue. So I urge you all to read Emily Willingham’s post on this. Journalists, who probably bullied the different themselves at school, wish to avoid the real issue – control of weapons – and will try to convince you this is about mental health, which itself has been politicised to the extreme and which is more about trying to lay blame than helping anyone. Do not believe them. They lie to serve their own social interests.

I am very proud of my boy. In a world of often nasty people he remains a wonderful human being.

I cannot classify this post.

29 thoughts on “Aspergers and empathy

  1. Journalists, who probably bullied the different themselves at school, wish to avoid the real issue – control of weapons – will try to convince you this is about mental health, which itself has been politicised to the extreme and which is more about trying to lay blame than helping anyone. Do not believe them. They lie to serve their own social interests.

    As a journalist who was bullied mildly myself, I’d say that’s overstating things. People are doing very lazy journalism. But it’s more about chasing the fax machine and not being given latitude to do actual research than serving anyone’s interest (aside from the interest of keeping one’s job.)

    That quibble aside, I like this post very much.


    1. Mental health issues do not account for much of the violent gun crime recorded. In fact I would bet that mental health issues account for less than the background rate of violent gun crime in the population. Generally speaking I reckon that mental health sufferers cause less violence with guns than “normal” people, psychopathy excepted. And of pyschopaths, most do not engage in gun crime either.

      Where the mental health issues come into it is suicide. Most gun deaths are suicides (I think about three quarters). Not having guns might alleviate the amount of suicides among those suffering with mental health issues. So it is, and remains, about gun control. From Australia, the American situation is extraordinary. You seem to be so acculturated into accepting the presence of guns that you really cannot see what is working around the world. It is regulation of guns, and removing them from society. It is not about mental health, which is its own issue, unrelated to public violence.


      1. All the killing in Sandy Hook was done in about two minutes with a legal assault weapon kept at the murder’s home. After the police showed up in an impressively short amount of time, the murderer killed himself. He’s came with a huge supply of ammunition, so he evidently would have kept killing until stopped. While mental illness was clearly involved, America’s exceptional availability of guns and ammunition was what allowed this to happen.

        N.B.: In a horrible coincidence, on the very same day as the Sandy Hook shooting, a man walked into a Hong Kong elementary school and stabbed 22 children. None died. (


  2. A reminder from the past:
    60 Minutes Segment on Martin Bryant pushes Autism Spectrum Disorders Back into the Dark Ages
    Submitted by michelle on Mon, 28/02/2011 – 9:51am
    Posted in Policy and Awareness


  3. You’re right to worry that a condition few understand might wrongly become asociated with violence due to its association with the Connecticut killer. However, if this report about his mother is correct (the usual Daily Mail caveat), I think people will ultimately blame her weird survivalist obsession more than her son’s condition.

    That said, consider this view from another mother of a special needs kid whose behavior reminds her of how the Connecticut killer is said to have acted:

    You may be right that U.S. gun culture is blinding us to what you consider obvious solutions. But we can only develop solutions within the culture we’ve got. Stigma of the sort you wish to avoid is already enmeshed with the gun situation here, so I’m not sure what choice we have but to tackle them simultaneously.


  4. By the way, as a parent of a kid with a different special needs situation who encounters autism-spectrum kids regularly, I found the following analogy helpful in distinguishing those on the autism-spectrum from sociopaths: if I as an American did something offensive to Australians because of my ignorance of Australian culture, I would feel horrible and would change my ways. But I hope that the first offense could be slightly forgiven on account of my ignorance. In the same way, those on autism-spectrum might not pick up on social cues as easily as others do, but once they learn them, they’ll feel regret at having transgressed them. Sociopaths, by contrast, will not feel bad if they’ve hurt or offended anyone. They can learn and follow the rules like anyone else, but they don’t possess the emotional cues most people rely on to reinforce societal norms. Understanding this difference is crucial to anyone’s assessent of the risk (or lack thereof) each group poses.


  5. Wow, talk about denying the truth. The biggest issue here is mental illness. Millions of people live every day, with guns, who don’t go all crazy and shoot a bunch of people. Yes, the availability of guns is a problem. But the big issue here is mental illnesses, something all of the recent mass shooters in this country share in common. These people need to be put on watch lists, and should be put through different school programs than neurotypical kids. Enough is enough already…


    1. Of course it’s a mental health issue. But this seldom happens in other countries, where the militia are well-regulated.


      1. And that’s the point. There are mental health issues across the world in every society. Why then do not these rates of gun massacres happen in other countries? Those where gun massacres do happen are those without effective gun control. The variable with respect to this issue are not mental health issues, but regulation of access to guns. Obama said as much, bless him.


        1. Gun control aside (and I’m for it)- other developed countries have superior mental heath care. Getting treatment for mental illness is extremely difficult in the United States. And most of us at one time or another will deal with a mental health issue – be it over stress, or a hormonal imbalance, or a brain tumor or concussion that changes behavior. I have friends with parents with Alzheimers that have dealt with uncharacteristic aggressive and threatening behavior. I have a distant cousin with bi-polar who has wrought havoc in her family’s life because they cannot institutionalize her. I have a friend who was deeply concerned about an employee who in his 30s began exhibiting SEVERE delusional behavior. Neither he nor his family could not get him help. A social worker actually said, “You’re a big guy, can you taunt him into taking a swing at you? Then we could arrest him…and he’ll be ‘in the system'” We have a mental health care crisis in this country, period. And I’m stunned that this tragedy has only inflamed those for or against gun control – and not mobilized everyone to advocate for mental health care reform – because that seems so obvious to me.


    2. Okay, I’m having trouble responding to this without using the language I would like to. I’m an Aspie, I’ve never harmed another person and I would never do so. Having Aspergers means I have problems in social situations among other issues. I am able to function as an independent adult, run my own business (mainly online), and have a longterm relationship. Aspies vary in how well they function in the wider world of course, I do better than some (and worse than others), but the vast majority are not violent. So much of a majority that I would say you need to look elsewhere for the roots of Lanza’s violence.

      The facts are that the mentally ill and disabled are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than to commit one. The vast majority of murders are committed by people who are not mentally ill. It’s hard to believe that someone would commit mass murder who wasn’t ill but plenty of people have, Timothy McVeigh is a prime example (he certainly held some irrational beliefs but not due to any illness and large swaths of the Republican party agree with them even while being appalled at his actions).

      And seriously, do you know how close your suggestion sounds to what supporters of eugenics have said? Lock up all the undesirables? Really?


      1. In fact I would go one step further (and tie in with my sociobiology/evolutionary psychology posts) and say that murder and violence is a normal behavioural disposition in humans when the circumstances and acculturation permit it. If Pinker is right that we are less violent now than in the past, then the presumption is that violence is something that scaffolds normal development. At the least a change in the resources and cultural attitudes have ameliorated our tendencies to sort social rank by the use of violence. Rule of Law is violence by other means, so to speak.


  6. Wide range of views here, interesting.

    My feeling, as someone who lives in the UK where pretty much the only guns around are those in the hands of criminals, and who is familiar with Aspergers, is that the Lanza case appears very much a mental health issue.

    First of all the mother seems to have fallen under the grip of a cult; namely the Preppers, who are preaching millennialism on a grand scale. Secondly, the son seems very much the victim of his mother’s delusional state, one which, as an Aspie he would be especially vulnerable to.

    I really like your OP though John, especially as you are one of the few to correct this false impression about Aspies somehow having no empathy.

    If anything, it is the USA’s love affair with the gun which is a symptom of their widespread mental ill health. In mainland Europe there are many countries where guns are widely held by the public, but they do not constantly misuse them in the way USAmericans do.

    As for tkieler’s idea about bundling up all the non-neurotypical youngsters together and putting them under surveillance what a shameful notion. It reminds me of the Apartheid era pencil test where if your hair was a bit too curly you were suddenly classified as “coloured” and exiled from your family.

    If the USA doesn’t wise up and learn some compassion, they will keep on tearing themselves apart.


  7. I entirely agree that blaming what happened at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on autism is picking on an easy target. It’s lazy journalism which panders to popular ignorance and prejudice. As you and Jennifer Willingham have argued quite movingly, autism does not preclude empathy.

    That said, killing your own mother by shooting her several times in the face and then going on to shoot down small children and the teachers who sacrificed their lives trying to protect them, is not the behavior of a normal, well-adjusted human being.

    I’m not autistic, as far as I know, but I cannot imagine what was going on in the mind of Adam Lanza that led to him to do what he did. In all probability, we will never know. I don’t much care if it’s classified as a mental illness or a behavioral disorder but something was very wrong there and that makes it more than just an issue of gun control.


  8. ” I don’t much care….”

    “Public perceptions of the link between mental illness and violence are central to stigma and discrimination as people are more likely to condone forced legal action and coerced treatment when violence is at issue. Further, the presumption of violence may also provide a justification for bullying and otherwise victimizing the mentally ill.”

    If it is more than gun control then public perception and in particular with regard to coercion in treatment should be cause for considerable alarm bells.

    Personally the trigger for violence in people with differences like Aspergers is no different than that for anyone else I suspect.

    The major difference being in how they are treated and perceived by others.

    I suspect that in order to preserve the ‘freedom and liberty’ of American citizens the temptation to restrict even further the legal rights of disabled people and there families will be somewhat tempting for politically minded legislators.


  9. As a person diagnosed with ADHD in the late 40’s I can empathize with yours and your son’s plight. In a way, I’m a bit loathe to draw the comparison, but the whole evopsych debate bears greatly on this. We each have a genetic poker hand that was dealt to us. Those people trying to claim that everybody is equal and that our situation is due to a lack of the proper nurturing are actually being more than a bit abusive to those who perhaps didn’t get the biological “royal flush.” I’ve had the blessing of talking with people who have things like synthesia and phantom limb. I’m amazed at the diversity of the human species. I think it’s more than past time to acknowledge that even though we are all the same species we’re not only different but not exactly equal.


  10. Hi dad,

    I disagree slightly with your post. Obviously my brother is everything you said, but I believe the issue with these shootings is probably both gun control and mental health. I’d say gun control is the most urgent issue, since firearms give immense power to mentally ill (and technically sane) people who do this stuff. As you said, “Why then do not these rates of gun massacres happen in other countries? Those where gun massacres do happen are those without effective gun control.” And I agree totally.

    But I was going to refer you to the article that mcygnet posted entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”. I admit I haven’t actually read it but that woman’s inability to get help for her son is obviously also part of the issue here. Now, if he doesn’t have access to guns he’ll be unable to go on a rampage and kill 27 people, but he has tried to kill his family members etc.

    Obviously I know that Aspergers doesn’t make someone violent and I totally agree with your point that violence is a natural inclination for all humans. But I guess my point is that first you have to take away the weapons, and then you need to help people who are approaching this point in their mental health where they’d do something like this..

    I’m basically just proud of having reached a stage where I can disagree with you slightly 😛


    1. Adam Lanza’s Mom deserves some responsiblity for what happened, but we will never know the full details. The only thing that is clear is that her strategy of dealing with her son’s mental condition failed horribly. Taking her mentally handicapped son to a shooting range was clearly a terrible idea.

      Some of the latest news I have heard on Adam Lanza’s Mom paints a more sympathetic viewpoint than the Daily Mail’s article though.


  11. The latest news on the motive of Adam Lanza is that the mother was going to have him unwillingly committed.

    I think that strongly points to another psychological disease other than Aspergers. Adam was right about the age schizophrenia shows. From wikipedia “A 2008 review found that an overwhelming number of reported violent criminals with AS had coexisting psychiatric disorders such as schizoaffective disorder.”

    It does fit. Schizophrenia takes significant effort to live an ordinary life, I can speculate the combination of schizophrenia and Aspergers would compound matters.


  12. John, perhaps you should file this post under – Being Young in a World Created by Adults – or as far as your lads are concerned, how about under Heroes.

    For forty years I was boringly normal – dealt a fair hand as mental genetics goes – hardly a Royal Flush but adequate for most purposes. A nervous breakdown though, brought on by a fortnight without sleep, introduced me to the weird and wonderful dimensions into which the human mind can travel. – I doubt it possible for the normal, those who have never been there, to fully understand the nature of being in a totally different mindset one afternoon.

    I recovered fairly rapidly. Twenty years later though I am still amazed at how one can suddenly be in a world strictly of ones own imaginings – yet at the same time the majority of people around you persist in treatment by ‘normal means’ because they know nothing other than normal.

    It is a while now since the old fashioned Mental Institution closed – but the idea of locking the mental ‘out of harms way’ is clearly still an option for some, from the comments and links to this post. – The idea of a clear division between the normal and abnormal persists.

    The ‘abnormal’ are now more free in society, either because of enlightened treatment – or cynically, economic reasons. Still though it seems that drug treatment is as much aimed to repress and subdue – than applied with true understanding of the mind. – A fortnight without sleep, a quick nervous breakdown and a suitable recovery period, should be part of the education of every student prior to a career in mental health – then they would gain an in depth knowledge of the subject.

    Hopefully it might be in the future that, with freedom for those ‘abnormal’ to participate fully in ‘normal’ life, then their contributions will be valued – that they might be those involved in the caring and treatment of such conditions they have the experience to understand – and treatment will improve accordingly.

    I opened this by saying my brain is adequate. – Adequate has become a neglected word. No-one seems to settle for adequate any more. – We live in a world where excess has become the norm – with success the only aim – at any cost. Then for many the deep frustration and fears of inadequacy can be the only result. –This particularly so when material wealth and profit seems at present the best measure of success.

    In America, an excess of guns means excessive profit for gun makers – hard to put that aim off target – guns are made to kill – live with it – that seems their motto.

    Maybe it is time to measure success in terms of our balance within the environment – and in that we are impoverished.

    But maybe that is off topic.


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