Autistic people advocating on their own behalf in recent years have been pushing society to accept the idea of neurodiversity, which argues that autism (and other neuroatypical conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and more) are not problems that need to be cured as much as they are different permutations of humanity and, therefore, people with these conditions deserve to be treated as equal citizens.
But demanding the right to equal treatment comes with the equal social responsibilities as one’s neurotypical counterparts. Autism and other neuroatypical conditions are not and cannot be literal “get out of jail free” cards and cannot and should not absolve neuroatypical people of their worst actions.
But in part because of the persistent myths about autism and the social stigmas that have been attached to people with the disorder, it’s become an increasingly convenient scapegoat for people’s harmful actions.
For instance, Albert Watkins, the lawyer for Jacob Chansley, the self-described QAnon shaman who is facing charges for his role in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, is now saying that his client’s supposed Asperger’s syndrome should play a factor in the disposition of his case.
“A lot of these defendants — and I’m going to use this colloquial term, perhaps disrespectfully — but they’re all f------ short-bus people,” Watkins told Talking Points Memo. “These are people with brain damage, they’re f------ retarded, they’re on the goddamn spectrum."
Setting aside Watkins’ bigoted and ableist language that was also outdated —Asperger’s syndrome, along with other autism permutations, was folded into the umbrella term of autism spectrum disorder in 2013 — his excuses for his client are just the latest example of people using autism to excuse someone’s bad behavior, no matter how unrelated it may be to their actions.
But using autism as an excuse only further stigmatizes autistic people and makes neurotypical people associate the condition with violence and antisocial behavior.
Of course, blaming autism for the harmful actions of entitled men is not unprecedented in our society, which is one reason why stigmas around autism persist.
For example, after it was revealed that Adam Lanza, who committed the horrific mass shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was autistic, calls to the advocacy group Autism Speaks spiked 130 percent. (Many autistic people and autistic-led organizations criticize the group for its lack of autistic people in leadership and its focus on finding a cure as part of its mission until 2016.)
Similarly, after rumors spread that the mass shooter at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015 might be autistic, a Facebook page called “Families Against Autistic Shooters” briefly sprang up, before it was eventually removed. The shooter's mother told The Los Angeles Times in 2017 that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s later in life and had been medicated for unspecified mental health conditions but stopped taking his pills, while his manifesto released that year suggested he had been treated for bipolar disorder.
But neurotypical people blaming autism for violent people’s actions is only part of the stigma-reinforcing cycle; people with autism who commit violent acts have also blamed their disorder — or, at least, allowed their lawyers to try to take advantage of the stigma, as in Capitol rioter Chansley’s case.
Take Alek Minassian, who killed 10 people with a van in Toronto in 2018: He pleaded not guilty on the grounds that his autism meant he could not be held criminally responsible. (The judge rejected his defense and found him guilty in March.) Similarly, lawyers for Jason Berlin, who was convicted of raping a woman in San Diego in 2013, argued during an attempt to withdraw his guilty plea that because Berlin was autistic, he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. (Berlin’s sentence was reduced from eight to six years as a result of the hearing, though the judge did not credit the autism testimony.)
And lawyers for Dylann Roof — the racist shooter who killed nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 — initially planned on arguing during his death penalty hearings that Roof had, among other conditions, autism as way of arguing that he should receive life in prison instead. Roof told a judge, “If the price is that people think I'm autistic, then it's not worth it,” and said that being labeled as such “discredits the reason why I did the crime.”
(Incidentally, Hans Asperger, the researcher for whom the syndrome is named, conducted his research in Nazi-occupied Austria, and referred or transferred children to a clinic in Vienna where children were experimented on or killed; autism would naturally diminish one’s standing as a member of the master race among the modern neo-Nazis Roof idolized.)
As someone who is autistic — and having spent the last few years researching and writing a book about autism — I can say that these rationales are unequivocally (to quote the president) a bunch of malarkey.
While it is true that autism makes social interactions difficult — in particular, it often makes it difficult to read other people’s nonverbal cues, on which so much of our social understandings are predicated — having some difficulties with social interactions is not in and of itself an incubator or predictor of violence toward others. There are plenty of autistic people who have never gotten involved in a violent insurrection against our democracy; there are lots of autistic people who have never committed a mass murder; and there are many autistic people who have trouble dating who have never raped anyone.
As autistic writer Zack Budryk (a former colleague) has written, plenty of autistic people have a strong sense of right and wrong, which governs the way we live our lives; being autistic doesn’t mean you don’t know the difference.
Saying that autism is why Chansley — or any of a myriad of other bad actors — committed terrible actions on Jan. 6 essentially argues that autism alone makes them (and any of us) prone to acts of aggression and therefore we are unprepared or unfit for democracy.
But what these lawyers hope will be a means of liberating their clients adds to the stigma that essentially imprisons other autistic people who do not conduct themselves in a manner requiring legal representation before a criminal court.
This is not to say that autistic people can’t do terrible things or that autistic people can’t be vulnerable to the same kind of online right-wing radicalization that affects our neurotypical counterparts. (There were, after all, plenty of neurotypical people who occupy the highest echelons of society among the rioters on the Hill on Jan 6.) Autistic people can as easily express bigoted views or be committed to social equality as neurotypical people.
Autism is never the sole reason people commit bad acts — or good ones — and one autistic person’s actions aren’t characteristic of the entire gamut of autistic people. We are just people — sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes a combination of both. One would think neurotypical people, who claim to have superior powers of perception in personal interactions, would be able to see that more clearly than we do.