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James Holmes and the Downside of Amateur Diagnoses

July 23, 2012 | Caroline Miller

With a frustrating lack of information emerging about James Holmes, the young man who opened fire at a midnight movie screening last week, there is loose talk all over about what kind of mental illness could drive a promising neuroscience grad student to commit such a horrific act. 

All we know at this point is that we can't understand it; we have no idea whether he had a history of psychiatric illness or had been exhibiting warning signs of a psychotic breakdown. And the amateur diagnoses we've been hearing are painfully misinformed, most spectacularly this comment from Joe Scarborough this morning:

As soon as I heard about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society— it happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale. I don't know if that's the case here, but it happens more often than not. People that can walk around in society, they can function on college campuses—they can even excel on college campuses—but are socially disconnected.

Even more stunning than the vision of these zombies walking around on college campuses is the fact that Scarborough has a son with Asperger's, and he went so far as to say that while his own son "is loved by everybody in his family and is wonderful," one has to worry about "those who may not have a loving family and a support group and may be a bit further along on the autism spectrum."

That statement is so misguided it makes me speechless. The fact is, of course, that there is no evidence linking autism with this kind of premeditated violence, and Scarborough's casual branding of college kids with autism as tragedies waiting to happen is the kind of thing that hurts a lot of innocent people. As Lydia Brown, a very sharp young woman who writes a blog called Autistic Hoya, put it in a post Friday:

When these things happen, there's always a second round of victims. And that's us, the neurodiverse. And we wait for it to happen because we know it will. It always does. And every time, it cuts deeper, reopens the torrent of unidentifiable emotions mangled together in a bizarre and incomprehensible mezcla.

It's certainly no balm to the people suffering from this tragedy, but if we can resist tarring a whole group—whether it's quiet white boys from affluent neighborhoods who play video games or people with autism who are "farther along on the spectrum" than Joe Scarborough's son—we can minimize the damage to a lot of other people.

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