Emily Willingham (Twitter, Google+, blog) is a science writer and compulsive biologist whose work has appeared at Slate, Grist, Scientific American Guest Blog, and Double X Science, among others. She is science editor at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology.
In May, the New York Times Magazine published a piece by Jennifer Kahn entitled, “Can you call a 9-year-old a psychopath?” The online version generated a great deal of discussion, including 631 comments and a column from Amanda Marcotte at Slate comparing psychopathy and autism. Marcotte’s point seemed to be that if we accept autism as another variant of human neurology rather than as a moral failing, should we not also apply that perspective to the neurobiological condition we call “psychopathy”? Some autistic people to umbrage at the association with psychopathy, a touchy comparison in the autism community in particular. Who would want to be compared to a psychopath, especially if you’ve been the target of one?
In her Times piece, Kahn noted that although no tests exist to diagnose psychopathy in children, many in the mental health professions “believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition (that) can be identified in children as young as 5.” Marcotte likely saw this juxtaposition with autism and based her Slate commentary on the comparison. But a better way to make this point (and to avoid a minefield), I’d argue, is to stop mentioning autism at all and to say that any person’s neurological make-up isn’t a matter of morality but of biology. If we argue for acceptance of you and your brain, regardless how it works, we should argue for acceptance of people who are psychopaths. They are no more to blame for how they developed than people with other disabilities.
If being compared with a psychopath elicits a whiplash-inducing mental recoil, then you probably have a good understanding of why the autism community responded to Marcotte’s piece (and accompanying tweets) so defensively, even though her point was a good one. At its core, the argument is a logical, even humanistic one. When it comes to psychopathy, our cultural tendencies are to graft moral judgment onto people who exhibit symptoms of psychopathy, a condition once designated as “moral insanity.” We tend collectively to view the psychopath as a cold-hearted, amoral entity walking around in a human’s body, a literal embodiment of evil.
But those grown people whom we think of as being psychopaths were once children. What were our most infamous psychopaths like when they were very young? Was there ever a time when human intervention could have deflected the trajectory they took, turned the path away from the horror, devastation, and tragedy they caused, one that not all psychopaths ultimately follow? Can we look to childhood as a place to identify the traits of psychopathy and, once known, apply early intervention?