Monday, July 23, 2012

James Holmes and Autism

A great autism support site sadly posted this video this evening:

I found this article shortly thereafter.

Though Scarborough is certainly entitled to his opinion, I agree with the call for an immediate retraction of the statements made during the interview. 

Why do I feel so strongly? 

Scarborough's son is on the autism spectrum, so he is seen by many as an authority on the issue. His statement, however, is damaging and misleading. 

The very fact that Holmes did what he did shows that he was NOT acting from his autism. 

Let me explain-- bear with me. 

There are three types of empathy: cognitive, affective, and emotional.

Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to identify the needs of others and the ability to understand why they do what they do (also called perspective-taking). If I see you carrying bags of groceries, I know you need me to open the door for you. That is an identification of a need. 

Emotional empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling.  If you are crying because the groceries are heavy and you are sad and tired, I feel sad, too. 

Affective empathy is the empathy that moves someone to help. It's what makes me open the door.

I saw the need (cognitive empathy), I felt the need (emotional empathy), and I helped (affective empathy). 

If someone is autistic, they have difficulties with cognitive empathy-- need identification. 
Someone who is deficient in emotional empathy is psychopathic
Someone who is deficient in affective empathy is sociopathic

If somone goes on the offensive and shoots into a crowd of people with no material gain, it is because it will hurt people (which will lead to attention, etc. etc. ad nauseum). If someone knows it will hurt people, then he has identified their need to not be shot. He has identified that it will hurt them. He has identified their needs to watch a movie in safety. Someone who cannot identify those needs will not shoot them. Why shoot? There is no reason or motivation. The cognitive empathy must come first. 

If someone goes on the offensive and shoots into a crowd of people with no material gain, it is because he has identified the needs and does not react with emotional empathy. He does not feel their pain. He may not feel it at all. This is a lack of emotional empathy-- it is psychopathic. 

If someone goes on the offensive and shoots into a crowd of people with no material gain, sees people hurt and is not moved to help, but continues to fire, then there is a lack of affective empathy-- it is sociopathic. 

So was James Holmes sick? Most definitely. His behavior was both psychopathic and sociopathic. But was it autistic? No. By its very nature it cannot be autistic. This is why there is no link in the scientific literature between autism and terroristic behavior. Is he autistic? Perhaps. It is possible to be both mentally ill and autistic (John Nash, for example). But the question here is whether John Holmes' autistic traits led him to commit this act. The answer, by definition, is no. 

Autism is a lack of cognitive empathy. Not a lack of conscience. There is a difference. 

(Author's note: Yes, I understand that the subject is not so black and white and is unbelievably complicated. It will take teams of psychologists and psychiatrists years, decades, to sort through this man's brain. Yes, that makes me hesitate to post such a black and white letter. And yet it is this very complexity that makes Mr. Scarborough's initial statements so much more egregious and necessitate a response and call for retraction.)