In the wake of the recent tragedy in Parkland, Florida, several notable non-profit autism advocacy organizations—Autism Speaks, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and the Autism Society—came forward with statements about the shooting.
As is often the face in the aftermath of such tragedies, the public ruminated over the question of what prompted the shooting and focused on explanations citing mental illness or disability. Autism, in particular, was, and continues to be, brought up with disturbing frequency in conversations about mass shootings.
The Virginia Tech Massacre, Sandy Hook, and the Umpqua Community College shooting are a few examples. There were also speculations that the perpetrator of 2014 Isla Vista killings was on the autism spectrum (although, according to a Forbes article, the perpetrator of the latter tragedy was never actually diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder). The Parkland, Florida shooting was no exception to this trend.
But why is autism often blamed? The assumption made by the media and rest of the American public is that there is a correlation between autism and violent tendencies. Many do not understand that autism is a developmental disability and not a mental illness linked to violent behavior. There is also a tendency to mistake a lack of cognitive empathy with an antisocial personality (commonly referred to by the outdated terms “sociopathy” and “psychopathy”). Self-advocate Kirsten Lindsmith clarifies the difference between cognitive empathy and affective empathy, saying “there are actually two types of empathy: Cognitive empathy (theory of mind), and affective empathy (emotional empathy).” She goes on to say “Sociopaths lack affective empathy, whereas autistics usually have normal to heightened capacity for affective empathy.”
The trend of blaming violent acts on disabilities or being mentally ill adds heavily to stigma and is dangerous for several reasons. The myth of violence masks the fact that disabled people are more likely to be victims of violence compared to non-disabled people. They are also more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, data from 2015 revealed that disabled persons are 2.5 times more likely to be victimized than non-disabled counterparts. The U.S Department of Health Services reveals that seriously mentally ill people commit only 3-5% of violent acts.
Stories of filicide and murder of disabled individuals by the parents’ hands are not uncommon and haunt the disability community. In a Forbes article, Emily Willingham shares the story of a boy with autism who was murdered by his mother. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has created an Anti-Filicide Toolkit in response to the disturbing trend. There is even a Day of Mourning that takes place every March 1st in remembrance of those who have died at the hands of parents, other relatives, or caregivers.
Following the Parkland, Florida shooting walk-outs, marches (most notably, the March for Our Lives), and other forms of protest were organized by youth across the United States. They did not identify autism as their cause for concern. They were not concerned that people on the autism spectrum were putting their lives in danger. Rumination over the relationship between autism and shootings are largely on the part of the media and adult speculation.
Whether or not someone has autism, simply put, is irrelevant to why mass shootings take place. Blaming autism for national tragedies is a misinformed, easy way to dehumanize an already marginalized population and avoid other serious conversations about why such tragedies take place. Therefore, it is imperative that we take action to educate and humanize those with autism, as well as others with disabilities.