The word “psychopath” has come up in connection with the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. In my filtered world, the “filter” referring to the fact that much of my knowledge of current events is pre-sorted, biased toward points of view with which I tend to agree, via the tool that is social media, the connection of the two terms is usually used in the context of rebuttal of some dastardly news headline of some violent crime or research paper that persistently tries to link the two.
And they really do keep trying to make this imaginary link. Hoping it will stick someday. Hoping to sway public opinion for This reason or That one.
It gets old and tiring. And it also gets devastating, to those of us unfairly and inaccurately associated with such horrifics. No matter how many times the pathology-based scientists or the sensationalist mainstream media try to create these ideas out of thin air, the air really is thin, because their continued promotion of the idea doesn’t make it any more true.
But it’s still damaging, because these efforts have the power to sway public opinions, court systems and jury verdicts, law enforcement policies and procedures, psychiatric ward criteria, and so on.
The latest I’ve found, a research paper in which the free full-text is available, leads off with a topic sentence that establishes the mindset:
“Individuals with psychopathy or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can behave in ways that suggest lack of empathy towards others.”
Ugh. Must we?
At least the sentences that follow are somewhat more clarifying:
“However, many different cognitive and affective processes may lead to unempathic behavior and the social processing profiles of individuals with high psychopathic vs. ASD traits are likely different.”
Well, at least that’s more comforting, even if only marginally. Not necessarily about myself–I already know that the autistic brain is light-years apart from that of a psychopath–but semi-comforting in the sense that finally, the rest of the world is starting to wake up to that fact, too.
Some observers may believe they’re witnessing similarities between the two, primarily involving the (incorrectly assumed) so-called “lack of empathy”. And thus, every time there’s a violent crime, such as a massacre, especially at a school, the public starts to wonder, increasingly out loud, whether or not the suspect was on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.
Please allow me to state for the cheap seats: autism is not psychopathy. Hell, autism is not even a mental illness; the diagnostic criteria themselves do not even touch on an inability to separate reality from fantasy or any kind of violent streak, and unless there’s something else going on, the general autistic mind is a sound one.
As usual, I’ll drive the point further home.
Psychopaths display several very non-autistic traits, such as those listed in a Discover Magazine article (which I found to be a fascinating read):
- glibness/superficial charm
- grandiose sense of self-worth
- pathological lying
- lack of remorse/guilt, shallow affect
- promiscuous sexual behavior
None of these fit the autism spectrum picture, as per the diagnostic criteria and my experience with several hundred blogs written by people on the spectrum, not to mention my interactions with a couple thousand autistic people.
Concerning the first point, glibness and superficial charm–if anything, the opposite is true for Asperger’s/autism. I can’t count how many times I’ve written or read personal accounts of the social awkwardness that lends itself to the diagnostic criteria known as the “Triad of Impairments” as they relate to social settings. If anything, I’ve found that the “plain Jane” autistic person wishes they had more charm and charisma.
What about a grandiose sense of self-worth?
A quick Googler of “self-esteem autistic” suggests that my experience of a lack of self-esteem is widely shared. (This blog post is a prime example, and it showed up on my first page of search results, and Wrong Planet discussions reveal that the sentiment expressed in the blog post is echoed by many.)
And the points about pathological lying and manipulation?
It’s not that an autistic person is incapable of these behaviors, but they’re far less common. How can a population so often accused of being “too straightforward”, “blunt”, and honest “to a fault” (to the point where accusations of hurting feelings and aloofness fly frequently) also be known for a sly, smooth, sneaky, lying nature? The truth is: it isn’t.
Moving down the list… A quick search for “autism intense feelings” yields the obvious fact that the emotions of Asperger’s/autistic people run deeper than anyone might realize, even oneself. (Another Wrong Planet discussion turned up at the top of my search, with some excellent insight.)
Moving further down the list only reveals similar differences.
I’m hard-pressed to find any reason for the incessant link between the Asperger’s/autism spectrum and psychopathy, other than a combination of careless third-party observation and a sensationalist desire for higher media ratings.
But while journalists and researchers might be trying to score 15 minutes of fame by making outlandish statements and drawing imaginary connections, the truth is that long after the spotlight has moved onto the next attention-grabbing headline, real and lasting damage has already been done, and it isn’t they who have to live with the effects. It’s real people, without violent tendencies, who pose no threat to anyone. People with sound minds, with enough challenge in life. And likely their families, too.
It’s not cool, and it’s not funny.
My suggestion to these researchers and journalists is that they actually reach out and start talking with autistic people en masse. Hell, a quick Google search for blogs, online discussions, and official criteria can be had with a couple of keystrokes. They need to make names for themselves in more constructive ways.
The first plans for bridges between the neurotypes have been drawn, and construction has begun. I’m hopeful that enlightenment will eventually be widespread–the norm, rather than the exception.
For fun, I took the psychopathy test. Here are my results: