Today started off as any other ordinary Saturday. I took my son to town, we had a drink in our favourite coffee shop and did a bit of shopping. We follow a strict routine every week which my son loves. It helps him to get out.
But today was a bit different. As we passed the newspaper rack in the newsagents shop, my son noticed the headlines on the front pages of the papers. Reading the words ‘shooting’ and ‘massacre’ my son turned to me and asked me what had happened. I explained, as simply as possible, that someone had used a gun and shot dead many children and teachers. He immediately became quite angry and responded that the killer should be sent to prison. It may sound strange to say that I was relieved that he understood the gravity of the situation.
My son has an autism spectrum disorder and it is often assumed that people with aspergers or autism do not have any empathy or the ability to share the feelings of other people. Autism and empathy is a contentious issue and one that is too complex to discuss in this short blog post. Nevertheless, many academics argue that people with autism have difficulties with empathy and whilst this may be the case for some people there is a growing body of advocates that challenge this notion. The website, Autism and Empathy, edited and published by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg provides an excellent range of writings by autistic individuals, autism parents and professionals who believe that autistic people can experience the world in highly empathetic ways.
Indeed, as the conversation with my son illustrates he did show an empathetic response. His reaction of shock and anger and his demand for justice suggests that he was able to emotionally react to the tragedy that had happened. In fact it took him a while for his stress to subside which indicates that he experienced a flood of emotions when I explained what had happened in America.
It is somewhat ironic that amid reports that the shooter may have had aspergers syndrome that my son, also with an ASD, has demonstrated such empathy. This is important because too often autistic people are described as having no empathy at all. To a neurotypical person this is understandable because people like my son can have difficulties reading and responding to the social cues of others which can make them appear aloof, cold or detached, in other words appearing to lack empathy. However, whilst autistic people may have difficulties recognising emotions in other people they can still share other people’s feelings, either intuitively or through explanation. Sometimes the emotions they feel can be overwhelming. Indeed there have been times that my son has felt something so acutely that he has had to withdraw from a situation and wait for his emotions to abate.
In the aftermath of the US shootings I understand that there is a temptation to look to blame it on something. Such is the horror of what happened and the incomprehensibility of it all that you can’t help but ask yourself “why”? However, I am worried by the number of media articles and online conversations that are suggesting that aspergers and in particular the lack of empathy is to blame. Aspergers may make up part of the man who committed this crime but it is likely that there are a whole range of other factors that has made this individual do what he did.
Without the facts, it is too early to say what is behind this terrible event and to immediately focus on aspergers risks creating suspicion of those with an autism spectrum disorder and stigmatising the autism community even further. Just because someone has aspergers or autism doesn’t mean they will become bad people. Autistic people may have difficulties reading and responding to the social cues of others but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel things. They may experience meltdowns when overwhelmed or frustrated with the world around them but this doesn’t mean that they will end up commiting organised violent attacks on other people or even massacres.
By all means extend your sympathies, thoughts and prayers to the people in Connecticut, as I will be this weekend, but please do not blame it on having aspergers. People with aspergers already have a lot to deal with in life without having the added stress that finger pointing will bring.