Are Links of Autism to Predatory Violence the Result of Yellow Journalism or “NT” Propaganda?
“Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. Should the shooter in today’s shooting prove to in fact be diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with another disability, the millions of Americans with disabilities should be no more implicated in his actions than the non-disabled population is responsible for those of non-disabled shooters.”
—“Autistic Self-Advocacy Network Statement on Media Reports Regarding Newtown, CT Shooting”
The idea of a connection between autism and random acts of violence and mayhem is one that has been growing over the past several years. But has it been growing because there is any actual truth to it, or because it has been made to grow through mis- and disinformation? Although I personally believe there is a deliberate effort to create this association in people’s minds, I won’t attempt to argue the point because, either way, the end result is the same. Instead, I want to look briefly at the facts and show how they have been distorted or ignored, allowing for this false belief to take seed in the public mind. I will then look at the possible, deeper reasons behind this.
As already described, random shootings in the US and elsewhere, mostly though not entirely at schools, have been going on for the past forty years. Their frequency has increased dramatically in the past fifteen years and seems to be continuing to do so. It’s only in the past five years, however, that autism has been repeatedly mentioned in connection to them. As far as I know, the first time this happened was in the case of Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean “spree killer” who allegedly murdered thirty-two people and wounded seventeen on April 16, 2007, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. As Wikipedia reports: “Immediately after the incident, reports carried speculation by family members in Korea that Cho was autistic.”
One week after the shootings, Blake Fleetwood, a reporter for the Huffington Post, wrote a strange article called “High Functioning Autism: Do You Know What It Feels Like To Be Torched Alive?” Fleetwood wrote that “Cho’s autism has not been mentioned much in the US media because the autistic community went ballistic — intimidating the media — at any suggestion that autism caused the killings at Virginia Tech.” This in itself is a curious assertion. Is it likely “the US media” would be “intimidated” by the autistic community, to the extent that it would suppress facts in order to escape their ire? Yet by implying a cover-up of Cho’s autism, the reporter is able to account for the factual vacuum from which his claims emerge. As it turned out, the reason why the press kept quiet about it was probably more straightforward: there was little real evidence for it. “[N]o known record exists of Cho ever being diagnosed with autism, nor could an autism diagnosis be verified with Cho’s parents. The Virginia Tech Review Panel report dismissed an autism diagnosis and experts later doubted the autism claim.” (Wiki article)
Undaunted by the paucity of evidence, Fleetwood’s article continues:
Cho likely did not receive the help and support that he needed early on — that is why early intervention is so important [Italics mine] . . . The neglect of these severe issues by ignorant educators in grade and high school led Cho to a dark history of psychological impairment with numerous other disorders — depresssion, entreme [sic] paranoia, and sociopathic anti-social behavior. . . . 600,000 adults are living with autism in the United States and this number is rapidly skyrocketing. Autism affects 1 in 150 children and is now the most commonly diagnosed developmental disability. It is time to recognize autism for the epidemic it is. April is autism awarness [sic] month. It may be that Cho sent his multimedia manifesto to NBC because of the Law and Order episode, which portrayed a victim of Asperger’s Syndrome, and that Cho thought NBC would understand his suffering. His motivation may have been to call attention to the plight of all victims of his condition. If this hypothesis is true, then Cho’s actions should be an alarm that wakes us all to the plight of those people on the fringes who suffer from autism and other emotional diseases. What can we learn from Cho’s words: “It’s not for me. For my children, for my brothers and sisters that you fuck, I did it for them.” This should be a wake up call for parents that stresses the importance of early intervention, research, and appropriate treatment strategies for kids who are bullied as a result of high functioning autism or other illnesses. [My italics]
However well-intended it may be, the article paints a vivid picture of an autistic person who, because he was not given “early intervention,” went ballistic and killed thirty-three people. Fleetwood cites the usual ominous statistics and tosses out the standard scare-tactics term “epidemic.” He speculates that Cho was on a mission to save “all victims of his condition” and quotes Cho’s ravings, making it sound as if Cho was on a revenge mission as much as a salvation one. Fleetwood cites “early intervention” once again as a warning to parents that, if they are foolish enough not to find “appropriate treatment strategies” for their children, on their own heads be it. However, since there is no “cure” for autism—since it is not a disease or a mental illness—what “early intervention” actually means is behavior modification, which often involves aversive therapy and in some cases is literally indistinguishable from torture.
Whether or not the Huffington Post article was a case of irresponsible journalism or of a deliberate agenda to promote “intervention” in the lives of autists, the result is the same. Yet what gave the article its basis was at best, a misunderstanding, at worst a deliberate distortion of the facts. Four months after the incident, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cho had been diagnosed with selective mutism, and was not autistic after all.
Next up, there was Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged shooter of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen other people in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson, Arizona, on January 8, 2011. Loughner had never been diagnosed with autism, but once again a rumor quickly spread, this time sparked by forensic psychologist Kathy Seifert. Apparently Seifert watched a video of Loughner, read some of his blog postings (which included various “conspiracy theories”), and announced, “Loughner should have been evaluated for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism or other mental illnesses.” This was reported by CNN and included in an online article, “Jared Loughner’s background reveals a series of warning signs.” All this amounted to was one person’s opinion— so how exactly was it “news”?
Then on 22 July 2011, a Norwegian man, Anders Breivik, allegedly bombed government buildings in Oslo, causing eight deaths, then carried out a mass shooting at a camp of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) of the Labor Party on the island of Utøya, killing 69 people, most of whom were teenagers. The British Daily Mail reported that,
Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik has a rare, high-functioning form of Asperger’s that has left him incapable of empathy or real friendship, one of Norway’s most prominent psychiatrists has told a court in Oslo. . . . As evidence, [Professor Ulrik Fredrik Malt of Olso University] cited the lack of emotion Breivik showed when discussing those he killed, his impressive memory for details, his obsession with numbers, his hypergraphia [obsessive writing], and his monotonous tone of voice. . . . Asperger’s support groups in Norway have attacked previous attempts to attribute Breivik’s massacre to the condition, arguing that there is no evidence that Asperger’s is associated with increased criminality or violence. Norway’s Dagbladet newspaper was forced to publish an official apology in February, after it failed to make this clear. [link]
Is a pattern starting to emerge?
More recently still, there was the Aurora, Colorado shootings at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, on July 20, 2012. The shooter was reportedly “dressed in tactical clothing, set off tear gas grenades and shot into the audience with multiple firearms, killing twelve people and injuring 59 others. The sole suspect is James Eagan Holmes, who was arrested outside the cinema minutes later.” (Wiki article) Since even Wikipedia refer to Holmes as a “suspect,” it seems reasonable to doubt that he was actually guilty, but he quickly became so in the public mind. And once again, a reporter jumped the gun (pun intended) by calling Holmes autistic. Immediately after the incident, on National television, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, after assuring viewers that he did not want to generalize, stated that he knew who was responsible as soon as he heard about the shooting. “I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society, it happens time and time again. . . Most of it has to do with mental health. You have these people that are somewhere, I believe, probably on the autism scale. I don’t know if that’s the case here, but it happens more often than not.” Scarborough, whose own son has Asperger’s syndrome, added that autistic people who lack “a strong support network” face a “terrible challenge” on a daily basis. “Again, I don’t know the specifics about this young man, but we see too many shooters bearing the same characteristics mentally.”
There was an understandable outcry from the autistic community following these cavalier remarks, after which Scarborough made a public apology. After referring to autism as an “epidemic,” he said he had been appealing for “increased funding and awareness for Autism and other mental health conditions . . . to support the efforts of those who work every day to improve the lives of Americans impacted.” Note Scarborough’s emphasis, not on autists but on their caregivers. This is typical of advocates for “intervention” in the lives of autistics. Scarborough rounded off his lackluster apology by saying, “I look forward to continuing my work with wonderful organizations like Autism Speaks to provide badly needed support to millions of Americans who struggle with Autism every day.”
Finally, in the most damning “case” so far, Ryan Lanza allegedly told police that his brother suffered from a “personality disorder” and was “somewhat autistic.” “An anonymous law enforcement official and friends of Nancy Lanza reported that Adam had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Due to concerns that published descriptions of Lanza’s autism could result in a backlash against others with the condition, autism advocates campaigned to clarify that autism is a brain-related developmental problem and not a mental illness. The predatory aggression demonstrated in the shooting is generally not seen in the autistic population.” This last point is crucial, and I will return to it later. But for most people it was probably a case of the autists protesting too much. The seed had already been sown.
The Litchfield County Times ran an article “Adam Lanza Had Characteristics of Typical Mass Killer, Says FBI Unabomber Profiler.” In it William Tafoya, “a professor at the University of New Haven known for his accurate profiling in the Unabomber case in the 1990s,” was quoted. “People with Asperger’s can have explosive personalities — they’ll be calm and then something will set them off . . . Some tipping point will cause rage. Explosive fits are very common. They tend not to be receptive to correction. That could be enough to trigger a violent episode.”
The article allowed an autism researcher to counter these comments, and in one form or another “autism advocates” have spoken up in each of these cases. But how much is it helping? Hearing such refutations may only be reinforcing the very idea that they are meant to banish. If ill-informed, frightened and angry people are already feeling distrust towards autistic people, they may be disinclined to take the word of other autists. And since many parents of autistic children, or of autistic adults, already feel exasperated, confounded, even hostile towards their children, they may choose to join the misinformation campaign as a way to get their children more “support,” i.e., intervention (or to have them committed). Two days after the Sandy Hook incident, an online article appeared for The Globe and Mail with the headline, “In wake of U.S. shooting tragedy, it’s time to talk about mental health, too”:
Bad reporting about the suspected Sandy Hook shooter may be having a beneficial effect. . . . [T]he mother of one teenage boy, who suffers from what she says is an undiagnosed mental illness, used the sudden national conversation as an opportunity to plead for help and understanding. In “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” writer Liza Long, based in Boise, Idaho, described the terror of living with a clinically disturbed 13-year-old who has failed to respond to medical treatment. “A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7- and 9-year-old siblings knew the safety plan – they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to,” wrote Ms. Long on her personal blog, in a post that was later picked up by larger blogs including Gawker and Buzzfeed. She added that she was, in essence, the mother of Adam Lanza; of the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris; of the Aurora, Colo., movie theatre suspect, James Holmes; of Gabrielle Giffords’s assailant, Jared Lee Loughner; and of the Virginia Polytechnic killer, Seung-Hui Cho. “And these boys – and their mothers – need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns,” she wrote. “But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”
That’s an awful lot of smoke for just a few cinders of speculation. Long makes a noble-sounding plea and places herself on the sacrificial cross next to Nancy Lanza. In the process, she makes no bones about diagnosing the most notorious and heinous “random” killers of recent years as autistic—despite the minor detail that none of them were ever proven to be so (with the possible exception of Lanza). Is this a simple case of lazy “yellow” journalism? Is it the result of runaway “concern” for autism “sufferers” (or more precisely, their long-suffering kin)? Or is something more questionable, even sinister, afoot? Certainly the pattern revealed by these reports — and the steady progression over the past five years towards a conclusive narrative—would suggest an agenda. In terms of how effective that agenda is proving to be, I don’t think it matters a great deal if much or all of the reportage linking autism to random violence turns out to be unfounded; the important thing is that it gets out there. Because once it does, the damage is done. It’s a whole lot harder to undo an association in people’s minds than it is to create one.
In a short book called Lying, Sam Harris mentions “a psychological trap which many people often inadvertently fall into. Most of us tend to remember the statements we first hear on any given topic, even if those statements are subsequently shown to be untrue. A really astonishing aspect of this predisposition is that a majority of people will remember ‘facts’ as true, even when they first hear about them in the context of their debunking.” (Source article) In the case of random shooters, it’s clear that public perception has very little to do with actual facts—much less direct experience—and that it is being shaped by presumption, speculation, and misinformation. As some of the above examples show, conclusions are now being jumped to so rapidly that the facts, as such, no longer even matter. Like Joe Scarborough, people are content to make up their minds before the facts even arrive. That way they can stick to their own “stories.”
(to be continued)
 One of the worst disseminators of negativity in relation to autism is thought by some to be the private organization Autism Speaks, which “uses damaging and offensive fundraising tactics which rely on fear, stereotypes and devaluing the lives of people on the autism spectrum. . . . Its television Public Service Announcements compare having a child on the autism spectrum to having a child caught in a fatal car accident or struck by lightning. . . . throughout Autism Speaks’ fundraising is a consistent and unfortunate theme of fear, pity and prejudice, presenting Autistic adults and children not as full human beings but as burdens on society that must be eliminated as soon as possible.” (http://asansouthwestohio.blogspot.ca/search?q=violence) “Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Bob and Suzanne Wright, grandparents of a child with autism. Their longtime friend Bernie Marcus donated $25 million to help financially launch the organization. Since then, Autism Speaks has grown into the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.” (http://www.autismspeaks.org/about-us) Many people on the spectrum see it differently. From a letter to Autism Speaks: “We, the adult autistic community, have been trying to warn you about this for years. We have endlessly demanded, pleaded, even begged you to drop your bombastic rhetoric about how ‘monstrous’ autism is, how it ‘destroys families,’ how it’s ‘a burden on society.’ When the public is fed this sort supercharged emotional imagery, they do not connect it with some abstraction called ‘autism.’ They connect it with real people. They connect it with US. All of us, including your children. When the public looks at us, they see our faces and feel the ‘monstrous’ imagery you have instilled in them. In this way, WE become the Monster. And when they see us in this way, they treat us badly. They treat your children badly, as you are now seeing, and as you will continue to see for years and decades to come. This is how dehumanization works. This is the process called ‘scapegoating.’ This is how paranoid societies wipe out whole populations of innocents without feeling a trace of guilt. This, in all its glory, is the the [sic] face of injustice.” https://dkmnow.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/autism-speaks-media-newtown-ct-sandy-hook-shooting/
 Quotes from Wikipedia article. On this last point about predatory aggression: “Researchers distinguish between two types of aggression: affective and predatory. Affective aggression is the most common; it occurs when an individual reacts to stimuli in the environment—or, as was the case for my son, internal neuropsychiatric events. These are short but very emotional episodes, accompanied by the increased heart rate and flushed skin of autonomic system arousal. The vast majority of violent crimes committed by individuals with an autism spectrum diagnosis fall in this category, and the details reveal a marked lack of premeditation. A 2006 Swedish study comparing autistic murderers with those who had been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder found that more than 70 percent of antisocial killers used a weapon, whereas only 25 percent of the autistic killers did—and, I should note, this group was very small, consisting of eight autistic individuals who had been convicted of homicide or manslaughter in Sweden from 1996 to 2001, compared with 27 who had been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder. As many autism advocates have pointed out over this past weekend, the autistic population has a lower rate of criminal activity than that of neurotypicals; in all likelihood this is because those who are prone to the most violent rages—like Sky Walker and Henry Cozad—are identified at a very young age. In the best-case scenario, they respond, as Jonah did, to psychiatric intervention. But this population is notoriously difficult to treat. Many end up in residential treatment facilities. Predatory aggression is very different. Cool, detached, and controlled, it is primarily a cognitive experience of planning and execution. When Adam Lanza donned black fatigues and a military vest, drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School with three of his mother’s guns, and ruthlessly gunned down everyone he found—this was an example of predatory aggression that is generally not seen in the autistic population. Still, this distinction doesn’t explain why so many autistics are prone to aggression of any kind. Studies have found that up to a staggering 30 percent suffer from aggressive and/or self-injurious behaviors of varying degrees. But it turns out this might not have much to do with autism at all—the primary impairments of which, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, involve socialization and communication, not violence. The violence has and more to do with psychiatric conditions that many people on the spectrum suffer from. One 2008 study by scientists at King’s College London found that 70 percent of their young autistic subjects had at least one co-morbid disorder, such as childhood anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, oppositional defiant and conduct disorder, or ADHD. Forty-one percent had two or more co-morbid disorders. It is this combination of developmental delay and psychiatric disorders that pops up again and again in the literature on autism and violent crime. ” (Source article)
 This is what Wikipedia has to say about a study of school shootings by the US Secret service. (I don’t mean to suggest that this is necessarily accurate either, only that it is a very different picture than the one the public have been given): ‘While it may be simplistic to assume a straightforward “profile,” the study did find certain similarities among the perpetrators. “The researchers found that killers do not ‘snap.’ They plan. They acquire weapons. These children take a long, considered, public path toward violence.” Princeton’s Katherine Newman has found that, far from being “loners,” the perpetrators are “joiners” whose attempts at social integration fail, and that they let their thinking and even their plans be known, sometimes frequently over long periods of time. Perpetrators who “run amok” in schools and other public settings do also share in common a severe lapse or more pervasive deficit in their capacity for empathy coupled with their inability to contain their murderous aggression — this may be due to significant psychopathy, psychotic symptoms (i.e. loss of a sense of reality), and/or to a consequence of significant violent traumatization — such as that of early physical abuse, that contributes to the development of dissociative states of mind (i.e. disavowal of reality, derealization, depersonalization). In short, as Columbia’s Daniel Schechter has written, for a baby to develop into a troubled adolescent who then turns lethally violent, a convergence of multiple interacting factors must occur, that is “every bit as complicated . . . as it is for a tornado to form on a beautiful spring day in Kansas.”’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_shooting