Lack of Empathy and Reprehensible Monstrosity ≠ Asperger’s Syndrome

by Nominatissima

So I was reading and clucking in horror about what horrible monsters people can be on this story about an internet troll who had serious issues with taking pleasure in the pain and grief of others, when I am confronted with these quotes in the story:

The court heard that Duffy has Asperger’s syndrome and lived a “miserable existence” drinking alcohol alone at his home in Reading.

She said his condition meant he was not aware of the effect he was having on his victims.


What an absolute load of urchin’s gonads. I could feel tingling when I read this story about something not being right, but I attributed that to the “Yuck, what a horrible human being” feelings I was getting, and wondering whether the reaction was a bit over-the top in terms of it being a freedom of speech issue. But no, it was my usual “Please, don’t let him be one of us” tingling that I get whenever someone with symptoms of Asperger’s ends up doing something reprehensible and making a splash in the news.

But let me explain why, in fact, Mr. Duffy’s autism is not a suitable defense in this case. And I promise it will go beyond, “I have autism and I don’t take joy in the pain and suffering of grieving people.”

There seems to be this pervasive myth that autistic people cannot relate to the emotions and feelings of other people. No, that is not the attitude of someone with autism. That is what a sociopath is like, not an autistic. They are not the same thing, though Mr. Duffy here proves they are not mutually exclusive. Most autistics are perfectly capable of understanding the distress and pain of other people. We just don’t express it the same way that most people do, or we may miss out on a person feeling pain or anguish because we misunderstand the signals, or we don’t understand unless the person says very clearly, “I’m upset because of xyz.”

That’s not what happened here.  Regardless of whether you have Asperger’s Syndrome, are completely socially clueless, or were raised under a rock, it is common enough knowledge that the type of behaviour he exhibited is not acceptable for a mourning ritual. Even if there were a slight chance that he was unaware of the grave nature of his cruelty, I’m 100% sure the feedback he received would have reminded him of it. He knew what he was doing was wrong, that it was distressing people, and that it was causing them emotional anguish. He just didn’t care. He prioritized his own amusement and getting the negative attention over consideration for them.

Duffy’s defense therefore isn’t just lazy and evidence of poor researched on the nature of autism. It’s also dangerous. Each time something like this happens, it jeopardizes the ability of tens of thousands of openly autistic adults who are not sociopathic creeps to lead healthy, normal lives among their non-autistic peers, because they have to field ignorant questions from their coworkers, friends, and acquaintances about Asperger’s Syndrome 101, and explain that they are in no way like that awful man.

I should know. I’ve done it repeatedly. There is no law that says that we have to disclose our disabilities, but guess what, most of us cannot effectively “pass” and it comes out sooner or later. I’d appreciate that when it does, it doesn’t mean that people I associate with will automatically have the wrong idea about me because a lazy defense attorney and an irresponsible news media jumped on this story.

Duffy may lead a miserable existence, which may have contributed to him being an irredeemable troll, but you know what makes me have a miserable experience? People looking for a quick scapegoat and using the disability that I share with him to absolve him of any responsibility for his actions. Keep this fact in mind the next time there’s a criminal who just happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome hitting the news.

About the Author: Nominatissima is an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria studying history and social justice issues. She is on the autism spectrum, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of fifteen. This post first appeared on her blog, nominatissima, and is reprinted here by permission.



6 thoughts on “Lack of Empathy and Reprehensible Monstrosity ≠ Asperger’s Syndrome

  1. You know, I was a very quiet person until you got to know me. Growing up, every time I heard a killer was “kind of quiet”, “kept to him/herself”, I got the same feeling. From what I’ve seen, most autisitics/Aspergians are gentle people, a bit clueless, but gentle.

  2. AnnaBWell says:

    This is good. We need to talk about this. For me, I see trolling and Aspergers as a kind of stereotyping. The stereotype is sticking to us like old gum under the table. For instance, in person, I often say strange things to others and make weird faux pas a lot. My intention is not to offend, but it often ends up that way. I try to control my speech, but I am clueless. This is hard to describe without telling a long-winded story, but I think that a lot of you know what I am saying. So, now I have a damaged reputation for being a clueless, strangely offensive person. It may not show in my writing. I have more control, and there is less improvisation on my part as I write. Unfortunately, when a troll appears in comments many people may think of someone odd like me.

    • Jayn says:

      People seem to have a hard time distinguishing between ‘clueless’ and ‘doesn’t give a fluck’. Of course, the real difference can be seen in the reaction to the offended feelings, and if you don’t notice that the person is offended (because somehow not pointing it out is the polite thing to do), as aspies tend to be a bit oblivious, you can’t really try and fix things, can you? I’ve had a lot of friendships end because I didn’t realise I was bothering people until things were beyond repair. (And…a couple because I didn’t realise how badly I was bothering people. I’ll take some blame in those cases.) It doesn’t help that I don’t realise how things sound until I say them out loud a lot of the time, even when I stop to think about what I’m saying.

      Social protocol puts ALL the onus on us, to notice when we’re bothering people and figure out how we’re doing so without outside input (“That’s why no one likes you” was a hated refrain as a child. Look, if I knew what it was that I was doing wrong, which you seem to assume I do, I WOULDN’T BE DOING IT). And when you’re just plain oblivious, you’re flucked.

  3. What is it about Duffy’s “lack of understanding” of his effect on families that differs from the everyday autistic? Most auties are by nature kind. Brusque (abrupt in manner; blunt; rough), but kind and willing to help. Was it that Duffy was also a mentally ill? Can a person be mentally ill, beyond Autistic, if autistic is a way of thinking? What I mean, was his problem a whole lot bigger than autism?? Seems to me he had little in common with the autistic people I know.

    • AnnaBWell says:

      Well, the news article said that Duffy spent a lot of time in his room drinking. Perhaps it’s the alcohol speaking more than anything. Alcohol can bring out pointless violence and scary anger in some people.

  4. Belfast says:

    Jayn says:

    “People seem to have a hard time distinguishing between ‘clueless’ and ‘doesn’t give a fluck’.”

    I agree with much of your comment, but this single line is the crux (for me). Who can distinguish innocent ignorance from malicious ill-intent ? Both behaviors can manifest similarly, from outside perspective. I’ve made many a social blunder, yet I don’t think any of those instances were unkindly motivated on my part-I just had no inkling !

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