09 June 2012

The Dangers of Misrepresentation

Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist gunman who killed seventy-seven people in one day last summer, appeared in court yesterday morning as a psychiatrist declared that he likely "suffers" from Asperger's Syndrome and Tourette's Syndrome. One news article claimed that "Asperger's is a developmental disorder on the autistic spectrum that often is characterised by a lack of empathy."1 Another article paraphrased the psychiatrist and wrote that "Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik has a rare, high-functioning form of Asperger's that has left him incapable of empathy or real friendship."2

And so, it is happening again. Those who write such news articles fail to understand the devastating and frightening impact that their words have on our lives. Language is imbued with power as it both reflects and shapes the society in which we live by creating rhetorical constructions that we readily transform into objects of presumed fact. People study this phenomenon in graduate school, and analyze it with the same scientific eye applied to mysteries of genetics and quantum mechanics.

The representation of disability in the media and in popular culture has a profound impact on cultural perceptions and prejudices, attitudinal barriers to equal access and opportunity, service provision, and the individual self-concept of millions of disabled people. Ableism inherent to the language used to represent disability and disabled people readily seeps into attitudes and actions directed toward us, leading to increased stigma, prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination on the basis of disability.

Although even a peer-reviewed paper published as early as 19913 found no evidence for any correlation between violence and Asperger's Syndrome— further finding that the incidence of violent behavior in those with Asperger's is lower than the incidence in the total population—the media has continually and repeatedly conflated being Autistic with a propensity toward violent or criminal behavior. Because of the fallacious and damaging assumptions still widely held today that Autistics lack empathy, do not recognize that other people have minds, and are incapable of expressing emotions, especially concern for others, it is very easy for the uninformed journalist to hear "autism spectrum disorder" in reference to a criminal defendant and jump to the unfortunate conclusion that serial killers, murderers, rapists, and terrorists must be Autistic because of their apparent lack of empathy for others and any other traits that fit neatly onto a checklist of Stereotypes about Autistics.

Of course Autistic people are capable of committing violent crime, but it is in no way a reflection of their identity any more than when Jews, Blacks, or Muslims commit violent crimes. The neurology of an accused criminal defendant generally has little to do with the actual meat of the accusation and everything to do with ableist attitudes and legal defense strategies. When journalists write with obvious fascination and perverse curiosity about accused violent criminals and when those same journalists attribute every known characteristic of the accused to autism, they are painting a very clear picture for the public— Autistic people are dangerous. Autistic people are violent offenders waiting to happen. Autistic people are the psychopathic murderers of horror movies who are completely incapable of recognizing that other people have lives and minds, and who are therefore capable of committing heinous crimes that any good, sensible, non-disabled person could not possibly commit.

This troubling trend exists not merely in the mainstream contemporary media whenever a particularly egregious case of murder or rape comes to trial, but also in the scientifically questionable practice of posthumously diagnosing prominent historical figures as Autistic— a number of historical criminals, mass murderers, and serial killers have been speculated to have been Autistic for many of the same reasons given when journalists speculate about contemporary criminals, including reasons that lack any basis in reality, such as false stereotypes and misconceptions about Autistic people.

This concept is not new to autism nor is it new to the present age. All marginalized and underrepresented groups have been subjected to the cruel process of othering, much of which is defined by the lengths to which a society will go to demarcate a marginalized group as an Other, not worthy of the same life, not worthy of the same rights as those who can fit into the privileged mainstream. Privilege is everywhere in journalism; it is a hallmark of the successful, well-read news media, and always has been. Most privilege is subtle and unrecognized by those who possess it, but its insidious influence taints journalistic objectivity with the cultural baggage of isms that demonize and dehumanize.

Those who report the news have a duty to report the facts, to make every effort to educate themselves about the dangers of misrepresentation, and to represent the subjects of their writing fairly. Until our journalists learn that their language can have significant and severe repercussions for the lives of the people whom their language maligns and misrepresents, we will continue to face attitudinal barriers across all spheres of society that have been reinforced by the imagery and language used to describe us and construct perceptions of who we are and what our disability means. We will continue to suffer the consequences of dangerous words.

For as long as journalists conclude that every violent criminal must be "an Asperger's sufferer" or "autistic and incapable of empathy," we will be viewed through the lens of aberrations to the moral fabric of society, potential mass murderers and rapists waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. For as long as journalists conclude that every parent or caregiver who killed an Autistic family member was a loving, caring individual who "snapped" in the heat of the moment because of the stress of caring for a disabled person, we will be viewed as tragedies and burdens to society whose lives are expendable and subject to the caprice of those who are "heroic" enough to tackle the "burden" of taking care of a poor, helpless individual.

For as long as journalists unquestioningly accept untrue and dangerous stereotypes as truths, we will be seen as less than people, less than human, our lives not worth living or protecting, our very existence a barely tolerated abomination. And that is unacceptable.


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1 "Expert says Norway gunman has Asperger's, Tourette's" ninemsn. 9 June 2012. <http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8481127>
2 "Mass killer Breivik may have rare forms of Aspergers and Tourette’s syndromes, says Norway's leading psychiatrist" Daily Mail. 8 June 2012. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2156530/Anders-Behring-Breivik-rare-forms-Aspergers-Tourette-s-syndromes-says-Norways-leading-psychiatrist.html?ito=feeds-newsxml>
3 Ghaziuddin, M., Luke Tsai, and N. Ghaziuddin. "Brief Report: Violence in Asperger Syndrome, a Critique." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 21.3 (1991): 349-54. Print.

9 comments:

  1. Oh so true, and dangerous. I cringe every time they offer a diagnosis of bipolar disorder for someone charged with a crime. It just furthers the stigma that exists, and helps no one.

    Excellent post, as usual :-)

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  2. I am utterly incapable of believing that the defence they plan to use is that he has Asperger's. He is a psychopath. There is so much difference between to two it is inconceivable (insert face of Vizzini from The Princess Bride here - sorry but this is the image I see every time I hear/think the word 'inconceivable').
    Also the journalists really should spend more than two seconds researching before printing 'facts', but then again, sensationalism sells better than truth these days.

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  3. I think it's better to see asperger being used than mental illness, the use of mental illness is completely accepted, even this post and the comments use he being a psychopath as a possible/acceptable reason. Normal people can be bad is something not even autistic people accept and it hurts to see autistic people defending asperger but saying that it was psychopathy or other mental problem.
    Everytime Asperger is used I see autistic people saying that it was not asperger but a mental illness. I see psychopath being used as a crazy evil person with no explanation.
    I hate when they use Asperger but there are more people saying this is wrong and it hurts more when they use mental illness and when it's autistic people saying those things.

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    1. That isn't somehow 'unfair' for an autistic to say that it is more likely that someone with psychopathy is not autistic or that a person charged with autism for comitting a crime may be instead thought to have psychopathy by autistics. Psychopaths really are dangerous men who care not for anyone's feelings unless it suits their interests, and no psychopath will say otherwise. In fact search "psychopath autistic" on the web and you WILL find psychopaths who say that autistics are in fact very caring and selfless whilst psychopaths are not.

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    2. Alicia,

      In regards to the use of mental illness as a label or attack on people accused of violent or horrific crimes, I completely agree with you. It is wrong to use any psychiatric or mental disability as a synonym for "evil, immoral person," and it does happen all the time. I think it is very sad that there is ableism among many Autistic people who will in one breath decry the use of "autism/Asperger's" as a label for people accused of violent crimes, but quickly jump to labels like crazy, insane, mentally ill, psychopathic, or sociopathic in the next breath for the same accused people without realizing the double standard that they are using.

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  4. I think that "empathy" is far too broad of a word, with far too many meanings and implications and nuances, for a statement like "they lack empathy" to have a lot of objective meaning.

    Sadly, people who read such statements will simply inject their own meaning into it, and right now far too many people think that "empathy" is nothing more than another word for "ability to have compassion."

    I do lack empathy. Not in the compassionate sense - I care about others a great deal. But in my ability to read and predict people's emotions. I'm bad at it. Saying that I lack empathy is technically correct, but it's also a statement that people will read into and definitely requires further clarification if anyone is going to understand.

    These stereotypes persist because far too many people simply don't want to bother with clarifying what they mean to say.

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    1. Andraya,

      You have to remember that there are two types of empathy--cognitive empathy and intact empathy. Cognitive empathy is what many Autistics such as you and I struggle with. Cognitive empathy is recognizing when others are expressing or feeling certain emotions -- as you said it, the ability to "read and predict people's emotions." That skill has nothing to do with intact empathy, which is the innate ability to actually experience or share in another person's feelings once they have been identified or observed, and to appreciate on an emotional level the depth and gravity of another person's feelings. That type of empathy is not deficient or defective in Autistics. The problems arise as most people conflate cognitive and intact empathy, when they are two different sets of skills.

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  5. Another wonderful post. Thank you so much for tackling this infuriating subject.

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  6. I agree with your post, and it is well written.

    While there isn't evidence that individuals on the spectrum are more likely to commit these type of crimes, and there are misunderstandings associated with the capacity for empathy and human connection, there are evidenced issues among children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders along with symptoms of ADHD, that they are more likely to be the victims of bullying at higher rates than the general population. They are also evidenced anywhere from 2 to 4 times more likely to bully others, than the general population, per linked research below, from 2007 and 2012.

    It's questionable as to whether this results from misunderstanding social communication, or frustration resulting in aggressive tendencies. This is a significant issue, as there are instances where young people on the spectrum have been harmed by law enforcement, because law enforcement does not understand the potential propensity toward striking out at others, among these young individuals on the spectrum, per potential misunderstandings in social communication as well as other potential factors.

    Interestingly, there is a stereotype continuing that the children on the spectrum are only on the receiving end of bullying behavior, where research provides evidence that this stereotype is not correct. And it may be more or less evident in the home environment as compared to the school environment.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17512887

    http://www.iancommunity.org/cs/ian_research_reports/ian_research_report_bullying

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