Empathy and autism

Empaths, we’ve got a situation. After these most recent mass murders, people are focusing their fears onto mentally ill people and autistic people. This is not only cruel, but it’s counterproductive, since autistic people and people who are mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of crime than to commit crimes.

Phtot of 28 candles in a heart shapeSince the Sandy Hook murders occurred, I’ve been very quiet, reading academic books on murder and violence, selectively accessing media, and watching people in my Facebook feeds reacting, sharing information, raging, grieving, posting, counter-posting, and theorizing wildly about the young man named Adam Lanza who killed his mother and then went to a local school to kill 26 people and then himself.

The opinions are still exploding, people are grandstanding, fake messages from Morgan Freeman are circulating, and feverish, ungrounded theorizing about mental illness, autism, survivalism, gun safety, and school safety are being argued about ferociously. All of this is understandable, but ultimately not helpful if it increases panic, reduces reasoned and empathic thinking, and encourages more hatred and stigma against people who are different.

I cannot pretend to know what Adam Lanza and his mother felt, or believed, or hoped to do with all of the guns they lived with. No one can unless they knew the family intimately. However, I do know and work with many people who are mentally ill, and I’m not afraid of any of them; I’m more afraid for them after this most recent round of scapegoating.

I also know and work with many autistic people, and I’m not afraid of any of them either — in fact, I’m far more afraid for them now that they’re being scapegoated so openly.

When acts of violence occur, you will see wondrous courage and the best of human nature arise — but you will also see the very worst as well. We’ve seen this everywhere, as people focus their ungrounded, uninformed panic and hatred onto autistic people and the mentally ill — often imagining that the two conditions are similar. They’re not at all, and neither one is predictive of violence like this.

If we focus in ignorance on people who are different — as if violence is a foreign thing that no one could ever predict — we’ll remain uninformed and unsafe. We’ll reduce our capacity for empathy, and as a direct result, we’ll make the world less safe for everyone.

But if we focus on differences with empathy and awareness, we’ll make the world kinder, more connected, and safer.

Gun-based multiple murders are much more connected to substance abuse and the nearly unregulated availability of guns than they are to anything else. The answer to this tragedy isn’t to further stigmatize minorities; the answer is to focus with clear-eyed empathy and intelligence on the actual problems instead of on the most convenient scapegoats.

Thank you for bringing your empathy and your clear-eyed intelligence to a waiting world.


6 Responses

  1. Gail Kenny
    | Reply

    Karla, your position on this is refreshing!

  2. Janet Gunn
    | Reply

    Karla, I have loved you and your work for years and I absolutely would never do anything to make anyone’s life, dealing with mental illness, any harder. When these things happen, and we have had way to many of them in Colorado, I have great compassion for all involved including the perpetrators and their families because I can’t imagine that anyone would do such a thing without mental illness being involved. Do you not believe that? The real point is that is important to know the difference between the bus that hit you and all busses. I would hope that we try really hard to figure out what causes people to do this and try to be proactive in preventing it without harming any innocent people, mentally ill, autistic or otherwise. AND limit the number of bullets readily available in a short period of time. What did you discover in your research?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Janet. Yes, it’s more comforting (?) somehow to think that these sorts of mass murders must point to mental illness or some sort of severe problem. I think it makes people feel safer to think that there is something intrinsically different about murderers, but in fact, they’re just people. These sorts of gun-based mass murders, however, are primarily committed by white males, usually under 35, and usually middle class or upper middle class.

      The best book to read if you’d like to get a handle on what you can personally do about violence is The Gift of Fear or any other title by security expert Gavin de Becker. He (unlike most talking heads) says that you can very easily predict violence — that’s it’s not a mystery or a secret, and that you can head it off before it occurs if you understand a few simple things about violence and the vital importance of fear.

      My favorite theorists in criminology are Donald Black, Mark Cooney, and Tony Waters (I was fortunate enough to help Dr. Waters write his book on homicide), and these three men bring forward a sociological approach to homicide, which means that they don’t focus on the individual, but rather on the context in which murders occur. One of the most helpful pieces of their work is their conceptualization of most murders as moral acts — as ways to right wrongs and address grievances in situations where effective enforcement or trusted third parties are not available. Some murders are predatory, certainly, but those are in the minority. In most cases, murders are committed as acts of self protection (or protection of injured others) or as responses to earlier acts of abuse or violence.

      Understanding most murders as moral acts — as the end result of previous insults and abuses — helps bring focus to the age of the vast majority of murderers (late teens to late twenties, mostly males) and the far too easy availability of guns. Since everyone is capable of violence and aggression, and young men especially are more likely to act out, it’s important to reduce easy access to lethal weapons. A street fight that might send people home with bruised faces and sprained ribs suddenly becomes a deadly encounter when guns are available — and many men in prison have told me that they didn’t mean to kill anyone — but that the grievances had to be addressed.

      The mythologist Michael Meade does a lot of wonderful work in the inner cities and in prisons, with gang youth and returning combat veterans — to help them bring a sense of sacredness and honor to the violence they live with. Michael is the real deal.

      I’m working on a post about violence, and I’ll see if I can get the tone right. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Barbara Richardson
    | Reply

    Thank you for the insightful information here Karla! We need more people like you here!

  4. Karla Wurzel
    | Reply

    I just have never had much of a need for rhetoric. I do have compassion for those who struggle to control anything and make their environments “safe”. And in our time I hope we all come to realize that we cannot control anything and safety is an illusion. My experience working with people who have been diagnosed with Autism has been so eye opening. Such intense feelings of compassion and talk about true Empaths! Just try to “not be noticed” by an Autistic person. The world is not a completely safe place, and there just really isn’t anywhere else to put schools for humans – so…The best we can do is understand our role and our path. Understand that everyone’s experience here is going to be different. If we are given the treasured opportunity to provide comfort and support to a victim of violence then we can call ourselves fortunate. Running amok trying to make sure children/people are completely “safe” is a futile pursuit. Doing so at the cost of a group based on diagnosis, or sex, or race, or handedness, or hair color, or any demographic is criminal.

  5. Allison Peacock
    | Reply

    Beautifully said!

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