Mass Murderers Might be Autistic – and Why the term “High Functioning” is Discriminatory

As most people probably know, a few days ago a man murdered 6 people and injured several more.  The murderer may have been autistic.

Before I go any further, I want to note that I recognize the horror of what happened in California and am very sad for what happened to the victims and their families. I do believe the entire autism community is united in this aspect and feels the same way.

One of the first reactions of any community, including the autistic community, when something like this happens is to want to distance themselves from the evil person. Some of this is in the form of, “We are not like that!” That’s valid, and true. Autistic people are less likely than average to commit violent crime (and more likely to be the victims – so we’re not the ones that someone needs to be protected from, we’re the ones that need to be protected from someone else).

But, there’s also a darker response: “He’s not autistic.” I can’t accept this knee-jerk response, as much as I do wish that the murderer is not autistic. Sure, we don’t know for sure that he was autistic, and that’s fine to point out in some limited contexts (but not as a way of saying, “So autistic people are okay”). Whether or not this murderer was autistic, the violence he displayed was something that isn’t part of autism, nor is it part of any number of other things (such as being a man, being a college student, being a gun owner, being a white sort-of-well-off kid). But it certainly isn’t part of his autism. That doesn’t mean he isn’t autistic, though.

We have good and bad people in our community.  Just like there are good and bad men, good and bad college students, good and bad gun owners, good and bad sort-of-well-off people. And I do believe we can and should judge individuals as individuals. And, yes, I recognize that there is typically a power – privilege if you like – differential between men and women, whites and people of color, sort-of-well-off people and poor people. But there’s a huge difference between being a member of a group that has social privilege and being a bad person. I’m not saying that privilege doesn’t exist or people shouldn’t be aware of it, but I am saying that it’s not a moral failing to be a member of such a group!

But, back to the autism, we can (and, in fact, should expect we have) bad people in our community. There’s a lot of myths that autistic people have perpetuated about how we’re beyond deceiving people, honest, trustworthy, kind, and any number of other positive things. But we’re not. I’m not saying we’re dishonest, untrustworthy, unkind, liars, either. We’re neither of these things, neither angels nor devils. We’re like everyone else: we have good things in each of us and also some ugly things in each of us. We’re not beyond jealousy, greed, or malice. We have good people and bad people in our community, and we need to recognize that. It’s a mistake to think a group I am part of is better than another group. It’s a mistake that the murderer in California made, one that fed into his evil acts – he felt he was better than the men and women he murdered. Obviously the rest of us have a different opinion. Autistic (or Aspie) supremacist stuff is bullshit.

But, when the “angel theory of autism” isn’t being used to try to discount the murder’s potential autism, another ugly belief pops up: that the murderer was too functional to be autistic. The logic is, essentially, “He was too high functioning to be anything like most autistics. He could talk normally, he could go to college, he drove a car.” Whether or not this leads to someone saying he wasn’t autistic, the point is the same: if you drive, go to school, and talk, then you’re not like real (phrased as most) autistics.

Two things lead to this: first, people have limited experience with autistic people. They may only know one or two, often children. And the person they know probably doesn’t go to college, drive, and may have obvious communication differences. Of course the person they know might only be 6 (how many 6 year olds go to college or drive?), but none-the-less when someone thinks of autism, they think of what they know. If the person they know is an adult that cannot do these these things, too often it is assumed that others are like this.

The other problem is that people think the world works as follows:

Two arrows, one pointing left, one pointing right. The left arrow says "Low functioning" and has, under it, "More Autistic."  The right arrow says "High Functioning" and under it says "Normal"In other words, there’s a line on which we can place autistic people.  There are middle-functioning people in the middle, still clearly autistic, but in the middle of autistic. There’s a few geniuses like Temple Grandin off to the right, approaching “normal” and definitely “high functioning”, and there is a bunch of people on the left who are more affected and thus “low functioning.”

But that’s all bullshit.

You might be able to draw a line like the above for one very narrowly defined skill. But it has to be really narrow. For instance, we all know there are good and bad car drivers. Some people are just plain better at it than others. But is it even that simple? For instance, someone might be great at driving on-road, but horrible driving a jeep on an off-road trail. Are they a low functioning driver?  Probably not. Or they might be fine driving during the day, but not at night. Or they might be great in a city, but easily fall asleep on a rural highway. Or they might be fine driving a little compact car, but totally lost if they are asked to back up a truck with a 35 foot long camper attached. They might be better at driving fast, but is someone that frequently exceed the speed limit a high functioning or a low functioning driver? Where would you be on the line (assuming you drive)? It probably depends on the situation and environment – I suspect I’d be pretty far to the left, near low functioning, if you put me in the cab of a tractor trailer, since I probably wouldn’t even know how to release the parking brake. But maybe I’m pretty far to the right when it comes to backing up a trailer (I can usually get into a tight spot on the first attempt easily). I’m probably somewhere in the middle for most tasks. So, am I a mid-functioning driver? Would you say the same thing if I said I am a professional tractor-trailer driver who can’t release the brakes (but is, on average, mid-functioning considering other skills)? Probably not – context matters. We probably need several lines, for different skills, like “Winter Driving”, “Trailer Backing”, “Tractor-Trailer Brake Operation”, “Night Driving”, “Rural Awareness Maintenance”, and “Speed Limit Obedience.”

Life is a whole lot more complex than driving a car. If we can’t just give one score on a continuum to a driver, imagine how much more complex life as a whole is!

I’ll use myself as an example. I have no problem driving a car most of the time (I can’t say I’m perfect, but I’m not a “low functioning” driver either). I attended college, even obtaining a degree. And I do talk.

Of course what this misses is that of these things, the only one I’ve done without significant difficulty is driving. For whatever reason, I’m comfortable operating pretty much any vehicle I’ve had a chance to operate, from bicycles to aircraft. I’m not sure why, considering how uncoordinated I am with most other things, but I can manage motor vehicles just fine. But the other stuff is definitely difficult.

Sure, I attended college. And it only took about 16 years for me to get my degree. I received a 4.0 average my first year. My second year saw me on academic probation. What happened? It wasn’t the material – I could and did understand the material. Trying to keep everything together for over a year was too much for me, and I was loosing the ability to handle all the daily activities of life. Sure, I could force myself through it – and did – for a while. But eventually that catches up. I don’t know many non-autistic college students that had grades decline as steeply (I do know several autistic students that have). I ended up dropping out, only returning a decade later when somehow I was willing to try to force myself through the process again. This is hardly “high functioning.”

I could talk about speech, but I won’t now, other than to say I had similar difficulties and still do – it’s why I still own and occasionally use speech generating devices.

But there were the other areas of my life too. I didn’t eat for a week when I started school, because I didn’t know where the cafeteria was. I was getting a 4.0 GPA at the time, but couldn’t find where the food was kept.  After a week, I was barely functional from hunger. Yet I couldn’t do the obvious thing: ask someone. Eventually, I ended up stalking another freshman for a few hours, figuring he’d eventually eat (fortunately, he did eat in the cafeteria). Food was a problem throughout my adult life, until I got married (my wonderful wife cooks for me – something that is a tremendous blessing after you’ve lived years of your life dangerously underweight because you lack the ability to manage this task yourself).

But I was high functioning. I went to college. I drove a car.

That’s the thing with autism (and, in fact, humanity). Having skill in area X doesn’t mean I have skill in area Y, even when it looks like X and Y should be reasonably related.

Sure, we like to be able to categorize people. We think there must be some difference between that kid we say is low functioning and the high-functioning examples of people like Temple Grandin. And certainly there is a difference – the obvious one is 50 years of age. But, beyond that, autism isn’t about being good or bad at any one thing. It’s about having a set of abilities that doesn’t follow the normal neurotypical model, and this goes both ways. I don’t have the research handy, but I know some researchers have found that autistics with low measured IQs, typically part of the group that is considered low functioning, share, with their higher measured IQ autistic peers, an ability to do certain types of intellectual processing that far surpasses that of neurotypicals. Of course neurotypicals far surpass both groups – the “high” and “low” functioning groups on other tasks. It’s not about better or worse, higher or lower, but rather different.

When people think of the California murderer, and think, “But he’s too high functioning to be autistic,” they are closing the doors to life-saving daily living services that some people need. They are deciding that autistic people can’t learn skills A, B, or C. They are ignoring decades of research. They’re also ignoring the tremendous variance between individuals, even when those individuals are all called autistic. We’re different, with vastly different skills. One autistic person might not just be able to drive a car, but could be a successful race car driver, while another would be a tremendous risk to traffic if they got behind the wheel. That doesn’t mean one is more autistic than the other. It means that one is a shit driver, while the other may be great. But still autistic. Yet others may have tremendous talents, but because they can’t do some random unrelated task, it’s assumed they wouldn’t be able to do whatever they are talented at doing. They’re “low functioning” after all. Well, that’s bullshit. Don’t dismiss us as non-autistic because we can do something, don’t assume we have other skills because we can do X, and don’t assume that we can’t do something because we can’t do X.

If you think you can put autistic people on a functioning line, from high to low functioning, you just don’t know autism.

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6 Responses to Mass Murderers Might be Autistic – and Why the term “High Functioning” is Discriminatory

  1. SMN says:

    Agreed, except to clarify that being a horrible human being that decides to kill random people as a response to rejection is not in any way connected to being autistic, whereas there could be a lot of autism-related reasons (sensory processing, reading “signals” from other cars properly, and motor skills, for instance) that driving would be difficult if not impossible for some autistic people to learn.

  2. Shannon says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. You help me understand my own experience with your words, as well as make some sense of these labels being thrown around about a very bad person who killed a lot of people.

  3. “The murderer may have been autistic.”

    No. Just stop right there. Until I see hard evidence, such as testimony from a psychiatrist or psychologist that knows their butt from their ear about autism, I will not accept people saying this. We have had too many shooters diagnosed in the court of media for this to be acceptable. I do not go around knowingly repeating lies about other people, and I would ask you to do the same for me.

    I will not even read the rest of this article after that. You could be more polite by just slurring me directly.

    • Dana says:

      I doubt any NTs would have been offended at the notion that he might have been neurotypical. I see this as an education opportunity, though, when people mention this about the killer. I saw one commenter claiming that the autism was why he was seeing a psychiatrist and I set that person straight. You don’t have to see a shrink because you’re autistic. It’s not a mental illness. It’s a difference in neurological processing. A neurologist who specializes, I would think, would be more appropriate. And for the coping issues a LSW or a psychOLOGIST would be more appropriate most of the time.

      Can mental illness and autism co-exist in the same person? Yep. But you can have one and not the other, too.

      If we just shut down when this stuff is brought up we’ll never make the public understand this. I mean I don’t see Autism Speaks issuing statements, so somebody’s got to do it.

  4. Joel says:

    He may have been. He might not have been. The point is that it doesn’t matter.