It is a common belief that psychopaths have no emotions or empathy but are able to convincingly fake them while autistic people have normal emotions but struggle to understand their expression in others. In this post I intend to explore the relationship between these facets of autism and psychopathy to provide insight into how this apparent contradiction can exist.
The short answer is that the confusion is a result of evolving terminology clashing with dated research and assumptions.
Autism used to be defined by certain forms of trait presentation and was distinguished from Asperger’s Syndrome on the basis of the individual being deemed high or low functioning. This definition was established during Nazi era Germany to divide autistics into those who could work in factories and those who would be exterminated to support the development of a master race. While 80% of research grants into the condition are following the Nazi trend towards eugenics and creating a utopian society without neurodiverse people, the actual progress has been in areas of understanding what Autism really is.
The modern definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder as described in the DSM-V is distinct from previous definitions in that it describes a spectrum of neurodiversity rather than set trait expressions. So while previous understandings of the condition would have a gradient of severity with normal expression on one end and severe autism on the other, the spectrum model has a number of key traits which can each be displayed as high or low to be considered divergent. A helpful way to think of this is to picture a sound mixing desk with an array of volume sliders. In this visualization, first imagine that you have traits like openness, social skills, emotional regulation, sensory awareness, empathy, baseline mood, etc. Now if all the slide bars for these are pretty close to the middle, somewhere between 4 and 6 with most hovering pretty close to the five, then you’re looking at the normal distribution of a neurotypical person. This presentation makes up about 80% of the population.
If all the slide bars for these are pretty close to the middle, then you’re looking at the normal distribution of a neurotypical person
Now if you push a couple of these sliders outside of the normal range by even a small amount you are going to have a person who perceives the world a bit differently. Let’s say we push sensory awareness up to 8 and emotional regulation down to 3; you now have a person who is going to be prone to emotional meltdowns when confronted with excessive sensory stimulation. Somebody with this form of neurodivergence is going to be easily identified as Autistic during childhood, but imagine what happens if we reverse the values. Somebody with low sensory awareness and high emotional regulation is going to be indifferent to levels of pain that would be intolerable for people with neurotypical expression and they’re also going to be emotionally distant and display psychopathic traits like “reduced affect”. If you then push the social skills slider up to 9 then you have somebody who can pick up minute social/emotional cues and perfectly imitate emotions while also having their personal perception of emotions muted. These are psychopath traits but are very much within the revised definition of Autism Spectrum.
Because ASD remains a pathologized condition, it has to be diagnosed on the basis of negative impacts. As such, clinicians tend to ignore trait expressions which present as beneficial and focus only on trait expressions which are detrimental. A non-pathological model like the neurodiversity model is better for understanding how the human brain naturally develops distinct specializations but because they don’t embrace the neurotypical exceptionalism of the pathology model they haven’t gained much traction outside of neurodiverse communities.
The specific collection of traits which make up the definition of Psychopathy all exist within the broader neurodiversity spectrum as a combination of non-stereotypical Autism traits plus some ADHD traits such as impulsivity. The construct of psychopathy has been observed as traits which tend to present together in males. The same is true of early definitions of the construct of Autism. In the neurodiverse spectrum model, both of these conditions exist as neurodiverse expressions within a normal distribution of human neurological variance.
A “psychopath” has a neurotype of high social awareness and high emotional regulation so they are able to observe emotional states in others cognitively and develop a working model of how people process emotion. Because neurotypical dominated society is hostile toward people who are cognizant of how emotional displays are used to illicit desired behaviors from others, a person with this neurotype will be forced to perform emotional displays from a young age in order to get by while being largely unaware of the trauma that this kind of self administered conversion therapy would normally cause. Their elevated capacity for emotional regulation makes trauma unlikely.
Neurotypical normalization forces neurodivergent people to conceal their differences to avoid ridicule and then demonizes them for doing so successfully
A neurodivergent person who displays traits in a sufficiently pathological way to get diagnosed as having “Autism Spectrum Disorder” may fit into the stereotypical Autism range of behaviors simply because boys who display that form of neurodivergent development will tend to behave in ways that inconvenience adults around them, resulting in early diagnosis. Low social awareness and low emotional regulation are key traits that would lead to early identification of ASD in young boys. Autistic girls tend to face greater social pressure to mask because of socially enforced gender expectations and are often diagnosed later in life after first being diagnosed with other conditions such as HPD, bipolar and BPD (the modern equivalent of a “hysteria” diagnosis) and then identifying their own autistic traits later in life, having to then educate their doctor or therapist about female autistic expression because the people tasked with diagnosing these conditions are rarely aware of female neurodivergent expression.
Now, you may’ve noticed that I haven’t spoken about ASPD (antisocial personality disorder) yet. This is not an accident. ASPD is not neurodivergent and it is not a politically correct term for psychopathy/sociopathy. ASPD is diagnosed on the basis of criminal pathology and is essentially a label for ensuring that people who don’t display remorse in a manner that neurotypical people like will receive harsher punishments and stronger resistance to claims of being rehabilitated after completing their sentence. The majority of ASPD diagnoses are performed within correctional facilities and other institutions which are financially motivated to diagnose inmates as incurably criminal and requiring indefinite incarceration.
ASPD is not the same as being neurodiverse
TL;DR: people with ASD are bad at faking social niceties because if they were good at faking it they would not be diagnosed. Psychopaths are good at faking it because if they weren’t good at faking it they would have been diagnosed as ASD in childhood.