It pains me that studies like this have to be conducted. The myth of the cold, calculated autistic shooter is just that – a myth. However, this stereotypical and deeply flawed perception is picking up more and more followers, and something had to be done. A joint study by the SISSA research institute in Italy and the University of Vienna in Austria found that autistic people exhibit a similar empathic response to the rest of the population.
Empathy and the autistic brain
“[Autistic people] are cold, calculating killing machines with no regard to human life,” reads a Facebook Group called Families Against Autistic Shooters. The group was since discontinued or hidden, but the fact that such groups are started in the first place is disturbing. This group, like several others, spurred after the collective hysteria provoked by yet another mass shooting in an American school last October, in this case by a 26-year-old boy who was later reported to be affected by autism. This caused an uproar against autistic people which only amplified a stigma against the people suffering from the condition.
Autism is an umbrella term for neuropsychiatric disorders with a wide spectrum shared by individuals with varying degrees of cognitive skills. In other words, autistic people can be more or less socially functional, but many of them have problems adapting. For this reason, they are often perceived as emotionless or as lacking empathy – but the science says otherwise.
“According to our studies, it is quite the opposite: the autistic trait is associated with a normal empathic concern for others and is actually associated with greater tendency to avoid causing harm to others,” says SISSA researcher, Indrajeet Patil, first author of a recently-published study in Scientific Reports. “The mistaken stereotype is most likely due to another personality construct, which is often found in the autistic population, but can also be found in those who are not afflicted, called alexithymia.”
Alexithymia is a “subclinical” condition (as opposed to a disease), which can be found in the general as well as the autistic population (with an incidence of 50% in the latter group). It is what most people would call “psychopathy” – the inability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of others.
“For a long time, the alexithymia trait in patients was confused with autistic symptoms, but today we know that they are distinct,” says Giorgia Silani, former SISSA neuroscientist, now of the University of Vienna, who led the study. “In alexithymia, there is a lack of understanding emotions. In autism, however, we know that what is reduced is the theory of the mind, or the ability to attribute thoughts and mental states to others.”
The higher incidence of alexithymia in autistic people is by no means a reason to ostracize them. The authors agree that tools for identifying and distinguishing between alexithymia and autistic disorders must be further enhanced, but this is an important first step. It is also important that news outlets emphasize this condition instead of autism. Lastly, if we want to fight shootings, the controversial issue of gun control in the US also must be addressed.