These passages from a NYT story on the accused El Paso shooter jumped out at me:

Neighbors and classmates described the suspect as “strange” and “off.” He was once seen by a neighbor playing outside with an ax. Another neighbor recalled that the suspect often gave terse “yes/no” answers and was often late for school because the clothes he wore did not feel right to him. That neighbor said the family rarely took vacations because the boy struggled with being in a car for long periods of time.

As a teenager, he briefly attended Liberty High School in the nearby suburb of Frisco, where his mother taught health science and medical terminology at the time. He later moved to Plano Senior High School, where he is not listed in the yearbook as a member of any club, sport or activity.

As a senior, he took a criminal justice class and enjoyed learning about “how the world of law enforcement works,” according to the yearbook. A former classmate said Mr. Crusius had expressed an interest in becoming a police officer, the classmate’s mother said.

To many fellow students, however, he was barely there. Some remembered him as an awkward, solitary presence in the hallways or English class, and said he did not seem to have many — if any — friends in a class of about 1,300 students.

Friends of his sister, whom they described as bubbly, kind and artistic, said they barely knew her brother.

The details reported here are consistent with a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder and autism spectrum disorder. I wonder if he was ever formally diagnosed, and if he was ever treated? If not — if his parents just thought he was a weirdo that they had to put up with — then we are looking at a terrible tragedy. If Crusius was on the spectrum, and did suffer from SPD, then he needed treatment. Generally speaking, being on the spectrum is associated with finding it very difficult to connect emotionally with people, and with perseverating on things or ideas.

Typically this perseveration comes across as an obsession with, say, trains, or the Civil War, or dinosaurs. It’s harmless, merely eccentric. But if Crusius was on the spectrum, and his perseverating inner eye fell on white supremacy, my God. Seven years ago, I read Christopher Hibbert’s history of the French Revolution, and concluded that Robespierre must have been a high-functioning autist. According to the Hibbert book:

1. Robespierre was extremely nervous and high strung.

2. He was very fastidious about his appearance.

3. “He rarely laughed, and when he did, the sound seemed forced from him, hollow and dry.” [Indicating that he didn’t know how to express normal human emotions.]

4. “He appeared to be unremittingly conscious of his own virtues.” [Some on the spectrum are rather severe in their sense of order, and intolerant of anyone who doesn’t think and behave in what they consider to be the “correct” way.]

5. Quote from Hibbert: “But if [young Robespierre] joined in [his sisters’] games, it was usually to tell them how they ought to be played.”

6. “… and when they asked [young Robespierre] for one of his pet pigeons he refused to give it to them for fear that they might not look after it properly.” (This is classic!)

7. At the university, “He seems to have been a solitary student who made no intimate friends and was apparently content to spend most of his time alone in the private room with which his scholarship provided him.” (A loner.)

8. According to his sister, the adult Robespierre “was almost completely uninterested in food, living mainly off of bread, fruit, and coffee.” (Because of the SPD that usually accompanies spectrum disorder, autists tend to eat simple diets, in part because of the predictability of a simple diet, and in part because sensory variety is unpleasant to them.)

9. He would lose himself in his work, sometimes forgetting that there were other people around him, or what had been going on around him. (People on the spectrum, as I said earlier, are characterized by their intense focus on their work, or whatever occupies their attention at a given moment.)

10. He was not a carnal man, nor was he interested in ordinary pleasures. Even when he was the most powerful man in France, he kept his same spare rented rooms in the rue Saint-Honore, and didn’t use his position to make his life more lively or comfortable. The work, and living by virtue, was the thing.

Any one or two of these traits may occur in many people, but it’s the combination of all of them in Robespierre that tips one off that he might have been on the spectrum. I hasten to add that high-functioning autists are not doomed to become one of History’s Greatest Monsters! In the right context, Robespierre’s atypical neurological condition (assuming he was on the spectrum) could have done a tremendous amount of good. In fact, he began his career as a lawyer fighting for the poor. His deep sense of injustice, and his obsession with righting it, led him to politics. But when he gained total power, he did become a monster, because his quest for justice turned into Terror. He was known among the leaders of the French Revolution as “The Incorruptible,” because he was so rigidly devoted to the Revolution’s principles that he would never deviate.

Once you realize that Robespierre was probably a high-functioning autist, it become very, very easy to understand why he was a true believer, convinced of the impeccable logic of his cause, and totally, even obsessively, committed to doing whatever he had to do to realize his goals. The fact that it meant the deaths of real people? They were just an abstraction to him, nothing but manifestations of ideas, good or bad. He couldn’t connect emotionally with people anyway.

Robespierre was a first-rate lawyer, it seems. High-functioning autists tend to make excellent engineers, surgeons, and data analysts, because their unusually logical minds, their ability to focus, and relative lack of emotionality are qualities suited to excellence in those fields. If you read Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short,” you will have met a man whose spectrum disorder gave him the uncanny ability to see deep patterns in stock data, and who therefore foresaw the 2008 crash — and made over a billion dollars shorting stocks.

But those same strengths can become huge liabilities when a high-functioning autist has to deal with people — to be precise, when executing one’s responsibilities depends on having an ability to understand how and why people behave, and to work within those contexts. In other words, when one’s job requires emotional intelligence.

Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, had been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome (meaning he was a high-functioning autist), and other psychiatric problems. He refused to accept this diagnosis, as, apparently, did his mother. He did not take the medication he was prescribed, nor did he undergo the rigorous therapy he was told to undertake. He had no friends, and in the months before the shooting, became a recluse who lived on his computer.

Let me emphasize strongly: I am not in any way saying that all people on the spectrum are at risk of becoming mass killers! What I am saying is that if Patrick Crusius is on the spectrum, and suffered from the torments of sensory processing disorder, then there are treatments that could have helped. Maybe the people in his life — his family — could have known to look for signs of obsession and perseveration on certain topics. Maybe Crusius himself could have found some relief for his suffering. The fact that he couldn’t go to school because his clothes didn’t feel right to him — you might think that this is a sign of fashion anxiety, but for people with SPD, it’s a very serious tactile issue. It is physically painful for them to be in clothes that don’t seem right. Something as minor as a tag in the collar of a shirt can be a kind of torture. It might sound ridiculous to you, but I’m telling you, it’s very real.

If Crusius suffered from this kind of thing, and didn’t know what was happening to him, or how to fix it, well, that might explain some things.

If we do find out that Crusius was on the spectrum (undiagnosed or diagnosed but untreated), it should NOT result in stigmatizing spectrum people, almost all of whom face far more danger from bullies and other persecutors than they would ever pose to anybody. This is important to understand! Rather, it should result in people — families, teachers, etc — being more sensitive to the struggles of autists, and being more aggressive in making sure that in their self-sought isolation, they aren’t getting lost in the slough of ideological extremism online. It could be useful in helping us understand what unique threats people on the spectrum face, especially online, from bad actors who would exploit their condition to radicalize and weaponize them.

I would appreciate hearing from readers on the spectrum who can provide insight here.

Advertisement