Why angry loners are not autists, and Joe Scarborough is just plain wrong

Advance warning: this is a bit ranty, and more opinion than scientific. But please read it anyway. This is important. 

For anyone who has had their head stuck in the sand since Friday, on 20th June 2012 a young man ran into a midnight preview showing of the new Batman film where he released gas cannisters and opened fire with three guns, killing 12 and injuring 58 others.  James Eagan Holmes was in court yesterday for the first time to be charged with 142 counts of murder and attempted murder.

Stage One: The ‘he must be mentally ill’ stage

I no longer need to open a newspaper or load up Google to know that a handful of people will have already suggested that the suspect has mental health issues. There will be people with little clinical expertise questioning whether James Holmes is schizophrenic, or has bipolar disorder. I could very quickly find the commentators who believe that all schizophrenics needs high-security psychiatric care. Were I in the mood to really irritate myself I might even seek out the minority who will be suggesting that this is not the perpetrator’s fault: that his (as yet unconfirmed) mental problems mean he is unable to take responsibility for his actions. (Good Math, Bad Math has some excellent thoughts on that topic.)

Stage two: Autism? 

All of this I expect. All of this I can deal with. Unfortunately today I read that American Cable News host, Joe Scarborough, announced that the perp is “on the autism scale” whatever that means.* He said that while he didn’t know if it was true in this instance  “it happens more often than not.” Way to generalise… Actually, way to pull a thought out of the air! Bizarrely, Scarborough has a son with Asperger Syndrome. He presumably interacts with other children with AS beyond his own child. He may even know some kids with profound autism.

(Full disclosure here: I have AS, and I also spent 3.5 years working with a learning disabilities charity, and then another year doing one-on-one support for a boy with more profound AS than my own. I know autism, but I also have a vested interest in people not thinking I’m about to murder them any time soon.) 

Autistic kids get angry, right? 

I find Joe Scarborough’s comment faintly ridiculous on a number of levels: like the fact that there is no evidence that the shooter has autism, and the fact that while there are strong links between terrorist violence or threats to public safety and other variables like unemployment, the same isn’t true of autism. As the father of a child with Aspergers,  Scarborough is probably aware that many autistic kids get frustrated at their inability to communicate, and may react by lashing out at parents or carers verbally or physically.

The thing that really grabs me about this story is that Holmes’ attack on the cinema in Aurora wasn’t the mindless lashing out of somebody overwhelmed by grief, or frustrated by autism. It was a carefully planned and accurately executed massacre. This wasn’t a spontaneous reaction to something that happened: it was an instrumental action in and of itself. This is what psychologists refer to as reactive and proactive aggression (see Dodge and Coie, 1987). The former is what we see in frustrated autistic kids (and adults). The latter is what we see in bullies, sadists and coldly calculating mass murderers.

And autistic kids are loners, right? 

I’m also struck by the parts of the media that have immediately equated “loner” with “autistic”. Assuming for a minute that by autistic they means Aspie, I’d like to point out that having Aspergers doesn’t necessarily (or even most of the time) make you introverted and unwilling to make friends. More often than not, young people with AS complain of an inability to make friends despite their best efforts. A lack of understanding of social situations and an inability to conform to social norms may lead to young people with Aspergers struggling to fit in : that’s not the same thing as choosing to avoid the company of others.

But apart from the fact that Scarborough is just plain wrong, what blows me away is that he thinks it’s okay to make this kind of dangerous generalisation and slur against an entire vulnerable group of people. The autistic community is already poorly understood. When people find out I have autism their reaction tends to be somewhere between Ooooooh. Yeah okay. That makes sense. and Really? But you seem… pretty normal. That’s partly because I’m not severely autistic. But it’s mainly because I’ve spent 25 years learning how to act in social situations. Fake it til you make it. Which actually does make me feel a bit sociopathic some days.

The autistic community already suffers from enough misinformation and misunderstanding. The last thing we need is somebody who should be an advocate implying that we’re all one step away from picking up a shotgun. Shame on you Joe Scarborough.


Dodge K, Coie J. 1987. Social-information-processing factors in reactive and proactive aggression in children’s peer groups. J Pers Soc Psychol 53:1146–1158.

*I’m being facetious. The autism spectrum is a widely used term to cover a range of pervasive developmental disorders like autism and Aspergers. There is undoubtedly a genetic link between them, given the high frequency with which siblings of autistic children have Aspergers, but they are not part of a continuous quantifiable scale.

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