While people with Autism have difficulty understanding the emotions of others, it doesn’t mean they can’t be empathic and feel them when they do understand.
Much of the reporting in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting has mentioned, or even focused on, the mental state, mental illness and other personality quirks of Adam Lanza.
Many are reporting was “developmentally disabled,” while a great many others are noting that he was possibly on the Autism Spectrum of disorders, possibly diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
People are equating this diagnosis with an inability to feel the emotions of others, but as Emily Willingham, mother of a 11 year old Autistic boy herself, clarifies in Slate:
Empathic ability comes in two forms. One is the social ability to recognise the emotion someone is feeling by following social cues, subtle vocal fluctuations, and other nonverbal communications. Psychopaths, for example, might be quite good at reading people, at applying this cognitive empathy and then possibly exploiting it. Autistic people, on the other hand, generally tend not to be that great at this kind of recognition in non-autistic people.
So, autistics have trouble interpreting the signs (non-verbal, or body, language) that people give off to indicate their emotions. They also have trouble putting themselves in someone else’s shoes and trying to guess what they are feeling.
But when they do understand someone’s emotions, like if they say them out loud, they can be incredibly empathetic, Willingham notes.
She writes about her own child and his experience with the shooting:
When he learned about them, his first response was to turn away in the chair where he was sitting, drooping his head over the back. He stayed that way for many long minutes, quiet and still. When he turned around again, my child who rarely, rarely cries had tears in his eyes. And then, his first urgent concern: that we break from homeschooling and go get his brother, our youngest son and in first grade, from school … now. And as we drove to the school to pick up his brother, whom I badly wanted to see and hug and hear, my oldest, autistic son voiced what I’d already decided: “Let’s not tell him what happened. That’s not something he needs to know. It would make him too anxious and scared.” Perspective-taking and empathy, you see.
And autism spectrum disorders have never been linked to social violence. As she mentions, autistics are more likely to have violence perpetrated against them.