INEXPLICABLE violence is the hardest kind to accept. The human wish to insert logic where there is none often drives bystanders to psychic violence of their own. This happened again last week, after it was reported that the shooter at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine people and injured several others, may have been autistic. Although there is no established connection between autism and murder, some eagerly leapt to causality and scapegoating.
The killer’s “diagnosis” was based primarily on posts on Yahoo made over the last decade by his mother, Laurel Harper, in which she characterized both herself and her son as having Asperger’s syndrome — a category no longer in medical use that describes autistic people with advanced verbal skills. Mr. Harper-Mercer attended a school that caters to children with special needs, including autism. While Ms. Harper is not a doctor, her descriptions of her son across his childhood are consistent with the syndrome.
A Facebook page called “Families Against Autistic Shooters” ranted about “the soulless, dead eyes of autistic children,” and characterized them as “cold, calculating killing machines with no regard for human life!” Its author announced: “What do all shooters over the last few years have in common? A lack of empathy and compassion due to Autism!”
If Mr. Harper-Mercer were rumored to have been diabetic or afflicted with male-pattern baldness, no such “explanations” of his behavior would have surfaced. But despite a huge increase in awareness of autism among the public, those with the condition are often subject to this type of disparagement.
This was evident in both the Facebook page and the response to it by Facebook’s management, who, despite the site’s anti-bullying policy, initially refused to remove it on grounds that it did not target named individuals. “Families Against Autistic Shooters” remained accessible until last Monday, by which time escalating media attention and a petition on Change.org with nearly 5,000 signatures embarrassed administrators into action. For the time it was viewable, the page stigmatized a population far more likely to be attacked than to attack, far less likely to receive justice when injured, and far more likely to be misunderstood. That devaluation of autistic lives is far deeper than any autistic devaluation of neurotypical lives.
Such prejudice arises in part from confusion about autism, which manifests in a multiplicity of symptoms, making generalizations difficult. Some people with autism cannot easily guess what other people are thinking, and therefore act without socially appropriate nuance. This perplexity is often conflated, unfairly, with lack of emotional empathy or even unkindness. Autistic people run the same gamut as other people: Some are kinder than others. Some find social interaction extremely taxing; others evince joy in trusted friends and family. Whatever anyone’s particular constellation of symptoms may be, however, autism is not associated with brutality. Failing to intuit certain aspects of other people’s inner experience does not equate to disdain for human life.
The wish to hurt others is tied not to autism but to psychopathy, which manifests in a deficiency or absence of empathy and remorse. Some autistic people may not recognize why they cause distress; psychopaths don’t care that they cause distress. Autistic people may see the world from a singular, personal perspective; psychopaths are often cunning manipulators who act according to perceived self-interest without regard for the destruction they cause. Psychopathy seems to have coincided with autism in the cases of Mr. Harper-Mercer at Umpqua and Adam Lanza at Newtown, Conn. Psychopathy apparently coincided with depression and grandiosity in the cases of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine and Elliot O. Rodger at Isla Vista, Calif. Psychopathy almost certainly coincided with schizophrenia in the cases of James Holmes in Aurora, Colo., and Jared Loughner in Tucson.
You can categorize such people as having a common madness only if your criterion for madness is their behavior itself. To say that you’d have to be crazy to shoot up a school is not the same as saying that crazy people are predisposed to kill. Fewer than 5 percent of gun crimes are committed by people with mental illness; fewer than 5 percent of people with mental illnesses commit violent crimes.
Tarring the autistic community in this manner — like presuming that most black people are thieves or that most Muslims are terrorists — is an insidious form of profiling. It exacerbates the tendency for people with autism to be excluded, teased and assaulted in childhood and adulthood.
The biggest challenge in cases where autism and psychopathy exist simultaneously is that the former is usually diagnosed and the latter is not, and parents who have received a diagnosis for their child tend to assign everything to autism. So a mother who knows her son has autism may presume that all his aberrant behavior reflects that condition, and may not seek evidence of other problems. Autism can be distracting.
It’s very reassuring to have an explanation for acts of horror. If killings like this are mostly undertaken by people with autism, the thinking goes, and your children and their friends don’t have it, then you are safe. Each of the Republican candidates for the presidency declared last week that we should deal with school shootings by providing aggressive treatment of people with mental illness — not to alleviate the suffering of the mentally ill, but to protect other people from the mentally ill. Unfortunately, psychopaths are often secretive, and we don’t have a psychopathy biomarker; despite urgent efforts from researchers, we can’t reliably identify these people ahead of time.
What we can say for sure is that stigmatizing people with conditions such as autism will not reduce gun violence; it will only amplify non-autistic people’s lack of ease with autistic people. Who comes up short on empathy in that scenario?
Andrew Solomon is the author, most recently, of “Far From the Tree.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 12, 2015, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: The Myth of the ‘Autistic Shooter’.