What Is Psychopathy’s Place In Neurodiversity?

Psychopaths loom large in the autistic anxiety closet. Our single-day traffic record at Shift Journal belongs to Scott Shea’s Spotting Psychopaths in the Workplace, which garnered nearly 1800 hits on the day it was posted. Conversely, it’s easy to see how autistics are favorite targets not just for the sort of psychopaths who make headlines and bring in decent box office, but also the everyday psychopathy of the schoolyard and the office. It’s a special relationship in more ways than one.

I was reminded of this when I ran across a letter published a couple days ago by Jon Ronson, who is among other things the author and filmmaker responsible for The Psychopath Test, both a book and a documentary. Predictably enough Ronson hears from people who are curious to know whether he ever gets emails from psychopaths, and this past Saturday he posted one such letter. It appears to have come from an extraordinarily self-aware psychopath who describes his experience as a self-referred patient at a mental health agency, for a course of treatment which lasted upwards of four years.

My case was rather unusual in that I self-referred. The mental health agency had not had a walk-in of this kind before. In the lead up, I had found myself becoming overwhelmed with a predatorial instinct that I could not shake - I’d sit, watching crowds of people go by, driven to mania by what I saw as their limitless inferiorities. Plans were set that, once enacted, would be very difficult to walk back from.

The age-old caveat here of course is that the Devil hath power to assume a pleasing form, that psychopaths as master manipulators are fully capable of painting just such a potentially disarming and thoughtful picture of themselves. So sure — keeping in mind also the Devil’s power to plant that fossil record that’s duped the paleontologists all these years — take the letter for what it’s worth. The reason I bring it up here is that once one starts comparing the language and reasoning used by this psychopathic letter-writer, and the language and reasoning put forth by the neurodiversity movement, striking similarities become apparent. At which point one must consider whether it is more likely that the irregular army of self-advocate autistics which has emerged over the past decade is engaged in a collective act of psychopathic manipulation (and I’m well aware this point of view does in fact have its fans) … or whether science and society have managed to misunderstand both autism and psychopathy in a similar fashion.

Yes thearapy was transformative, though it is possible to overstate its impacts. I will always see the world through different lenses to much of the rest of the world. My emotional reactions are different, my endowments are impressive in some respects, not so in others, much like other people.

It is also the case that, being ‘normal’ takes a degree of energy and conscious thought that is instinctive for most, but to me is a significant expenditure of energy. I think it analogous to speaking a second language. That is not to say I am being false or obfuscating, merely that I will always expose some eccentric traits.

Seeming contradictions and ambiguities bedevil those who observe both psychopathy and autism from a wide angle. Ronson for instance is on board with businessman and radio host Thom Hartmann’s long-standing assertion that American-style corporatism functions as it does because it incentivizes the best and brightest psychopaths to compete for the most elite corporate CEO positions. And as psychopathy emerges as the worm in the corporate apple, it’s turned out that many of the best minds of each generation bear fruit not in spite of but precisely because they are autistic. What, then, might the analogous, unambiguously positive contributions of the psychopath be?

Well, lets look at what (bright) psychopaths are naturally quite exceptional at… We are good at identifying, very rapidly, extreme traits of those around us which allows us to discern vulnerabilities, frailties, and mental conditions. It also makes psychopaths supreme manipulators, for they can mimick human emotions they do not feel, play on these emotions and extract concessions.

But what are these traits really? - Stripped of its pejorative adjectives and mean application, it is a highly trained perception, ability to adapt, and a lack of judgment borne of pragmatic and flexible moral reasoning.

In a sense, one can almost see psychopathy as a mirror or photo-negative image of autism, each occupying opposite ends of a particular axis. As it happens, Ronson is also big on the notion of psychopathy as a spectrum. He recounts alarming himself over the number and extent of psychopathic traits he learned to recognize in himself and in others, and eventually runs up against the same absurdity encountered by those who attempt to draw a clear and consistent line across the spectrum, between autism and not-autism. Unlike those burdened with cobbling together the next DSM, Ronson is not above playing this absurdity for laughs.

And then, who wouldn’t want to know a psychopath such as this.

These days I enjoy a reputation of being someone of intense understanding and observation with a keen strategic instinct. I know where those traits come from, yet I have made the conscious choice to use them for the betterment of friends, aquaintences, and society. People confide in me extraordinary things because they know, no matter what, I will not be judging them.

I do so because I know I have that choice. After years of therapy I am well equipped to act on it, and my keen perception is now directed equally towards myself.

Continuing, the letter-writer relates that he anticipates the same accusation encountered by countless autistics who are able at least some of the time to “pass

Its true that I do not ‘feel’ guilt or remorse, except to the extent that it affects me directly, but I do feel other emotions, which do not have adequate words of description, but nevertheless cause me to derive satisfacton in developing interpersonal relationships, contributing to society, and being gentle as well as assertive.

Such as statement might tempt you to say ‘well obviously you’re not a real psychopath then’. As if the definition of a psychopath is someone who exploits others for their personal power, satisfaction or gain.

Not only does the choir respond, “As if the definition of an autistic is someone incapable of feeling empathy” (or lacking an imagination), I’m also reminded here of a recent citation by Michelle Dawson @autismcrisis:

“different people may acquire moral values through different mechanisms” http://j.mp/nNUmHA survey-based study of empathy etc in Aspergers

“Different people … different mechanisms” and the struggle we have with accepting those differences speaks more to me of a conflict between The One (acceptable kind of person, kind of mechanism) and The Many (legitimate ways of being in the world) than it does between Good and Evil, and yet it is with Evil that psychopathy is explicitly identified. Implicitly, much the same association still holds for autism. Make no mistake, my own brushes with psychopathy have been harrowing enough that I’m not lacking in respect for its destructive power (nor for that matter is Mr. Ronson). And were I of a mind to, I could Eeyore away many a night bemoaning the Good that autism has cost me and mine, and will cost us yet. But when something is taken to be Evil, the ways in which we are able to experience it are few, and unattractive, and most importantly unfruitful.

What power, beauty, and fruitfulness we are capable of, I suggest, lies not in fighting the good fight but in taking care in how we conceive, recognize, and experience events and conditions from psychopathy to autism and beyond. It may well be that what evil has been perpetrated to date lies more in our own sins of omission, in our failure to take such care, than in any supposed quality inherent in that which we’ve chosen to fight against.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 10/11/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 5 Comments | Read More

Comments (5)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    Indeed. If neurodiversity is to be a meaningful concept, then it has to include everyone. I agree that there is probably a large spectrum of psychopathy and that most of the people on it are productive citizens who have put their traits to good use.

  2. rossman says:

    Thank you so much for this article!

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  4. Minnie Pax says:

    For an autistic person to say that fear of psychopaths, is keeping them from accepting psychopaths as neurodiverse, is the same fallacy that NTs use to reject autistics.

    This idea of fear is part of what causes the stigma for disability. Remember that many people also fear the autistic spectrum, that the curebie movement is driven by fear that Big Bad Autism must defeated.

  5. […] movement exclude psychopaths, even though that would be obviously inconsistent (see here, here and here). If psychopathy really is misunderstood, it is plausible that public opinion polls and […]

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