Very odd ‘bedfellows’: Autism and Psychopathy

A post in today’s BoingBoing pairs autism and psychopathy together based on the premise that both are not so much “‘disorders’ in human behavior” as they are “speciation — a different kind of human.”

  • Psychopaths: According to research done by Dr. Marnie Rice, a psychologist with the Mental Health Centre Penetanguishene, in Penetanguishene, Ontario, psychopathic behavior is an “evolved survival strategy”; “psychopaths have evolved to capitalize in a particular environmental niche — namely preying on the rest of society.”
  • Autism: According to research done by Michelle Dawson, an autistic researcher, and Dr. Laurent Mottron, psychiatrist and cognitive neuroscientist at the Riviere-des-Prairies Hospital, autism makes a person a “different kind of human:” “They say that arguing that autism makes you ‘good at numbers’ but ‘bad at socializing’ is like taking a dog and saying that it’s a special kind of cat that’s ‘bad at climbing’ but good at fetching slippers.’”

Psychopathy and autism are, as the BoingBoing post notes, “uneasy bedfellows”; it is emphasized that “autism isn’t psychopathy.” And the BoingBoing post raises an important point, namely the need to redefine the DSM’s classifications of what is a “disorder” or a “disease.”

Nonetheless, due to the history of autism as a “devastating disorder” that was once diagnosed as childhood schizophrenia, it seems to me that BoingBoing ought to emphasize more what very odd “bedfellows” psychopathy and autism are. Autistic persons like my son Charlie may do things that seem “bizarre” and dangerous and that unknowing bystanders can interpret as something very different from what they are. Representations of autism in the media still tend to be negative and to emphasize that to live with autism is a “nightmare” and that to be autistic is a “tragedy.” Words do matter, words have associations that far surpass their assigned definitions, and psychopathy, and autism, are not words to be casually cast around and paired together.

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    • beesharp

      I’ll do my best to ignore Dawson’s comment for the time being-however, I’ve noticed as of late that there is a huge misunderstanding about what empathy is about, and its functions. Empathy is a social survival skill, not necassarily havining anything to do with goodness. Your average psychopath might have better social skills and a better sense of what might be going on in the head of someone else, but lacks guilt, and certain aspects of impulse controls. A psychopath might understand the difference between “right” and “wrong”, but it’s for the most part an intellectual understanding, they don’t really feel it. Most autstics do have an emotional understanding of what is “right”, and what is “wrong”. Feelings about what is right and wrong, of course, are pretty much emotionally based, even though there is an obvious evolutionary logic behind it. I have a feeling that the human race would of never succeededat least as a social species-for this long if we were all psychopaths.

      As for wether or not psychopathy is a disease, I believe that it isn’t, and that one can argue that it might be a natural variance of the human condition. But many things are natural, such as strokes, heart attacks, and leprosy. It should probably be taken off the DSM-whatever, but the condition should not be taken lightly.

      As for evolution-I’m skeptical about psychopathy being an evolved trait, even though it is pretty advantageuos if you are working in the average multinational corporate setting. Not every trait is an adaption in the evolutionary scheme of things.

      Now back to Dawson-

      While I like her work, it’s not like we’re a different species. Current research has shown that while most of autistic cases are most likely due genetic factors, the genetic difference is not only so small, but that you don’t even need all of the genes associated with the disorder to occur (three at most of the molecules in an expressed fashion-sorry that I’m over-simplifying here) for conditions like it to occur. You also have to take in to account how evenly distributed the genes associated with autism that might be spread across the human population (and as anyone familiar with contemporary bio-anthropology, human genetics, and early human history would know that there is no “pure” ethnic groups). And while we are wired a bit differently, there is so much diversity in the autistic spectrum, and not only in it, but in the “NT” population as well, and even our normalities and abnormalities tend to blend in to eachother. Her view, I think, is romantic, and reminds me of many a sci-fi novel and short story. But to say that autism is a speciation is to show ignorance of evolutionary theory, and a lack of understanding of what speciation really means. (If you want to learn more about speciation, I reccomend buying a good book on biology, evolutionary biology, or at least clicking here,

      IMHO :).

    • beesharp

      I’ll add one more thing-not only has there never been any proof that speciation with our species’s population has occurred (in essence, there is no race, period), but the suggestion of it has been used by psuedo-scientists in order to promote racist ideology.

      That being said, let me emphasize, that I am in no way accusing Dawson or her collegue of that kind of bigotry of any kind. I just want people to understand why using that type of language raises eyebrows, and can be both dangerous, and is pseudo-scientific.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Thanks, beesharp. Your use of “romantic” has me thinking—-are we perhaps in danger of “romanticizing autism”………

    • Michelle Dawson

      Beesharp is saying that our published data (I assume all of it?) suffer from “romanticism”, something journal reviewers and editors have unaccountably but universally overlooked. Maybe someone here could inform us in which way our data are “romanticized”, so we can correct this appalling error.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      I was thinking about references to autism that sentimentalize and otherwise “romanticize” what autistic children are like (lost souls locked in an autistic nightmare), for instance.

      Thank you for responding here, Michelle.

    • Michelle Dawson

      I was responding to Beesharp’s assertion that we’re conducting romanticized pseudoscience (and that we’re entirely ignorant of the existing science). Clearly, this needs to be corrected (maybe an erratum?), so I’m looking forward to Beesharp’s critique of our published data.

    • Joseph

      Michelle: You didn’t really suggest autistics are a different species, right? That’s just a way to illustrate the problems with the prevailing model of autism as normality plus defects. (To be pedantic, biologically speciation requires inability to produce fertile offspring, and the biological definition is not clear cut at that).

      As to psychopathy being an evolutionary adaptation, that could very well be. In fact, for something to be heritable and exist in a discernable proportion, it has to be an adaptation of some kind. The low prevalence of the psychopathy polymorphism, nonetheless, suggests that it stops being advantageous if there are too many psychopaths running around.

    • zilari

      I don’t think there’s anything pseudoscientific about documenting reality. Strengths are strengths, and differences are differences. Acknowledging them is important and wholly scientific. There’s a difference between saying that “autistics have leet superpowers and should therefore be allowed to exist” (which is not what Michelle, et. al. are doing) and saying that “autistics have strengths and particular differences”.

      I don’t really like the “pairing” of autism and psychopathy here, but I think it’s interesting to note that autistic people are probably (and I’d need some data on this, but I suspect it strongly) less likely that nonautistic people to fall for the “charms” of psychopaths, who tend to make heavy use of the same kinds of manipulative tactics employed by advertising.

    • Michelle Dawson

      What we’re suggesting about ways to more accurately characterize autism is similar to suggesting that it may not entirely be accurate (or useful) to characterize women as defective men (or men as defective women).

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      And perhaps no longer to use the notion of “defective”—-women as “defective men” being a concept found among ancient medical writers (Hippocrates).

    • beesharp

      I’m well aware of your method of argumentation, Ms Dawson (I’ve seen alot of the netwank involving you in many a thread online), so I am not going to bother to argue with you. Yet again, you choose to use strawmen and ad hominums in order to make or justify evasions of criticism.

      I will ask you this though, are your parents lawers?

    • beesharp

      Strengths are strengths, and differences are differences. Acknowledging them is important and wholly scientific.

      I have no arguments with that, the problem I have here is about confusing traits with adaptions, and those are two different things. There is also a difference between psychological adaptions and evolutionary ones. If autism is an adaption in the evolutionary sense, then that would mean it would in fact affect the whole species entirely. The people working on this, Dawson included, would no doubt benefit from consulting books written for the scientific trade in regards to biology and evolutionary theory before making these types of assertions. Dawson, form my understanding, has university connections. Surely it would not be too difficult for her to get in contact with the biology department in order to clarify scientific issues and jargon.

      One last (with a big “maybe” here) point-

      It is most likely more easier to argue that those with chromosonal problems such as Fragile X and Down’s Syndrome have more consistent simularities, especially in regards to neurobiology than those with autism would. But genetists certainly wouldn’t call people with Fragile X or Down’s Syndrome a result of “speciation”, or “adaption”. Yet they, oddly enough, like autistics, can be found in nearly every part of the population.

      As the old saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

    • Joseph

      It is most likely more easier to argue that those with chromosonal problems such as Fragile X and Down’s Syndrome have more consistent simularities, especially in regards to neurobiology than those with autism would. But genetists certainly wouldn’t call people with Fragile X or Down’s Syndrome a result of “speciation”, or “adaption”. Yet they, oddly enough, like autistics, can be found in nearly every part of the population.

      Whether autism is called an adaptation (and speciation was already dealt with) is not relevant to the model of autism as a type of person. Clearly, Down’s syndrome is a type of person, despite the fact that Down’s syndrome results from a de-novo mutation.

      There are many paths to a DSM-IV autism diagnosis, including de-novo mutations and environmental causes. Inheritance from the broader phenotype of the parents occurs often and is well documented, but regardless, the model of autism as a type of person seems more useful than the alternative.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Regarding Fragile X and autism: Any thoughts on this article, Fragile X syndrome and autism at the intersection of genetic and neural networks?

    • Belial, Diagnosed with Personality Disorder Anti-Social, Paranoid Schiziod and Avoidant Traits

      This article really peaked my interest.

      I live in Australia (former convict colony) My father is a convicted murdered and my mother is a member of the stolen generation (aboriginal children taken from their families to be assimilated into white society) many aboriginals were wiped out during the genocide that occured upon European settlement. The rest were survivors.

      I myself am most defiantly a psychopath and my younger brother has autism. If anyone has the genetic heritage to prove this hypothesis it is us.The dregs of society forced into the socio-economic bottom wrung of this joke thats called human society’s smaller form of natural selection. Maybe the lesser elements of humanity (the non rich and beautiful people) were meant to be less successful. I guess it backfired. So sad.

      I believe that “speciation — a different kind of human.” may very well be true. And through the separation and segregation of classes/incomes/races you may just be creating the conditions to breed psychopaths and autistics as an evolutionary adaptation to the world they live in.

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    • Sakany

      Are we all born sociopaths? We’re certainly not born civilized and have to be taught to be civilized. Surely all our social behaviour is learned. We are not born knowing it’s wrong to kill, steal, commit adultery, etc. As tribal beings wouldn’t it be more normal to kill a stranger wandering into our territory rather than shake hands with him? and what is it than stops us just taking whatever we want when we want it? Empathy and socialising are taught in schools, supposing that we don’t know these things automatically and it’s generally supposed we can become more empathic by reading literature, especially that written in the first person i.e. imagining ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Comments?