The Sandy Hook Shooting – Autism and Empathy

The Connecticut School Shooting – Autism and Empathy

The Houston Chronicle reports that a former classmate of Adam Lanza said, “If you looked at him (Lanza), you couldn’t see any emotions going through his head.” The presumption here being that Lanza’s apparent lack of empathy seems to confirm his Asperger’s diagnosis and may explain the motives for his violent behavior.

This is wrong. It is commonly assumed that people with Autism can’t feel empathy. The truth of the matter is, many on the spectrum feel enormous empathy. In fact, they are overly sensitive and often find it extremely difficult to regulate their empathetic feelings.

When asked, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome confirm this. A few years ago, young people on the Spectrum talked about their ability to feel empathy in a website discussion on
“If anything, I struggle with having too much empathy” one person commented. “If someone else is upset, I am upset. There were times during school when other people were misbehaving, and if the teacher scolded them, I felt like they were scolding me.”
Another individual said, “I am clueless when it comes to reading subtle cues, but I am *very* empathic. I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling, and I think this is actually quite common in AS/autism. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it.”
So why do pundits and commentators leap to make the Aspergers-Non-Empathy-Violence connection when talking about the school shooting in Connecticut?

Because we all want an answer to this senseless killing and we’d like it to be one we can understand. But Autism, like the truth, is complicated. And leaping to a conclusion that Adam Lantz’s autistic tendencies can help explain his violent outburst simply invites a discussion that takes us backward rather than forward and does nothing to help us do the hard work of understanding what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary.

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