Don't Blame Autistic People, or Mental Illness, For Mass Shootings

The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) felt compelled to issue a statement debunking media myths linking autism and mental illness with violence:
"Recent media reports have attempted to suggest a link between individuals on the autism spectrum and violent behavior. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network [ASAN] is concerned by the proliferation of misinformation which may contribute to increased stigma and discrimination against Autistic Americans. Autistic people are no more likely than any other group to commit acts of violence. People with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. There is no link between autism and violent crime. Similarly, there is no link between psychiatric disability and violent crime."
You might assume the statement is a response to emerging reports about the Umpqua Community Colllege shooter being on the autism spectrum, but that statement was actually written almost 18 months ago in response to a different spate of violence and the resulting media missteps. ASAN's words were relevant then, and are unfortunately relevant now. Please share them widely.

Why does the media continue to perpetuate these myths about autistic people planning mass murders? As Emily Willingham pointed out the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, it's because of assumptions that autistic people lack empathy, because people mistakenly assume empathy is a monolithic state. But there is a distinct difference between cognitive empathy (recognizing physical and social emotional cues and acting on them, which can be difficult for autistic people) and emotional empathy (identifying with another person's recognized emotional state, which autistic people can do just fine). Because autistic people have their own ways of reacting to emotional situations, people who aren't autistic can mischaracterize their autistic peers as unfeeling -- when in fact it's usually the opposite that's true: autistic people are often overwhelmed by emotional empathy to the point of paralysis.

And it can't be repeated enough that autistic people, like those who are mentally ill, are far -- far -- more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violent acts. John Oliver addressed this issue in detail, in the context of media (and ignorant dillweeds like Trump and Carson) blaming mental illness for the UCC shooting. (Video without captions, apologies.)

Autistic or mentally ill individuals are also less likely to plan violent acts -- when they are violent or aggressive, it is usually a reaction to being provoked or having their environmental tolerance limits bridged, and is a panicked, fight-or-flight response. People running on pure instinct and adrenaline are hardly in planning mindsets.

Knowing that autism and mental illness aren't to blame for mass shooting tragedies, isn't going to prevent those tragedies, however. What can we do about having fewer future victims?

There's not a whole lot we can do under our current gun control laws, and as long as American policy makers refuse to acknowledge that countries with stronger gun contol regulations have dramatically few gun-related deaths. Currently, Americans can get a gun more easily than they can get an abortion or driver's license, so individuals who have been exposed, conditioned, or encouraged to consider mass violence are going to have the opportunity to act. Currently, not enough Americans or American media outlets give a shit about gun control laws to limit those opportunities. Currently, while the NRA is puppetmastering the GOP,  none of that is likely to change, and more shootings will happen. That's the pattern. That's our current reality.

But you can act. You can sign petitions for better gun control. Even better, you can write to -- or meet with -- your local congress member and tell them how you feel. You'd be amazed at how straightforward arranging such a meeting can be, and what your impact will be.

And in the meantime, please keep keep debunking those myths about autism, mental illness, and mass shootings.


  1. When a plane crashes, every single aspect is analyzed, publicized and the findings are used to make changes to make air travel safer for everybody. No sane person would say "oh, that's just a coincidence, let's hush it up, otherwise people might be too scared to travel".

    There's no link between autism + violence. There's no link between mental illness + violence. All of which is made EXPLICITELY clear in news reports about Sandy Hook and the OR community college shooting.

    Reporting that the OR shooter was 26, born in England, researched mass shooters, and the child of divorced parents should be no different than reporting he was all of those things plus autistic + had a history of mental illness. Those are facts. They are newsworthy.

    There are also eerie parallels between this shooter and the Sandy Hook shooter -- again, facts. Of COURSE everything possible about any mass shooter should be examined in detail ... by learning about how/why these crimes were committed, it may be possible to figure out what can be done to stop them.

    A teeny-tiny minority of NTs commit horrific, violent crimes (not unlike the even teenier-tinier minority of individuals with SN/mental illness who commit horrific, violent crimes).

  2. Anyone could just place the blame on someone or something they could care less about...

  3. Thanks for this Squid! To generalize wildly, people with mental illness, as a group, are incredibly compassionate people - each and every one has a deeply personal understanding of suffering and (assuming they are well enough to be able to be in the here-and-now) are usually willing to cut others some slack. Suffering with something invisible to the rest of the world is incredibly isolating and no one who has been there would wish it on anyone else.

  4. (er, I can speak with lived experience on mental illness, not for those on the autistic spectrum)


Respectful disagreement encouraged.