The Isla Vista Shooter: This is Not the Autism Spectrum

The mass murderer displayed malignant narcissism, envy, and entitlement that are not typical with his reported autism spectrum diagnosis. Misunderstanding mental illness introduces potential for misplaced fear.
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Flowers placed through a bullet hole in a deli window where part of the Isla Vista mass shooting took place. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

In the interest of prevention in the aftermath of the horrific killing spree in Isla Vista, California, last weekend, the public is again looking to mental health experts for a window into the state of mind of a mass murderer. This time, because the assailant, 22, left us with abundant personal information in his harrowing YouTube videos and 140-page manifesto, My Twisted World, we have an opportunity to analyze a state of mind. The detailed and transparent nature of his videos and life story, as well as their ease of access on the Internet, provide mental health, public policy, and law enforcement experts with an unprecedented opportunity to find some insight in the psyche of a mass murderer.

It is doubtful that his true diagnosis was “high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome,” (a diagnosis which has been phased out and is subsumed under that of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)) as alluded to by the family attorney. His behaviors are much more consistent with malignant narcissism.

Making the case for the inappropriateness of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis in Elliott Rodger’s case is critically important to address the public misconception that autistic individuals have an unusually high potential for violence. One in 68 children currently has a diagnosis of ASD, so the potential for misplaced fear is great. In fact, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that people afflicted with autism spectrum disorder are less prone to engage in any criminal behavior compared with the general population.

Nor, for that matter, do autistic individuals typically hyper-focus on their appearance, crave admiration and sex, act as if they are consumed by envy and the need for revenge, desperately try to undo shame and humiliation by shaming and humiliating others, or harbor grandiose fantasies of fame and fortune—all of which percolated in the mind of Rodger. We are squarely in the realm of pathological narcissism here. 

By definition, people afflicted with ASD are under-concerned with their appearance, not over-concerned. They exhibit a fundamental deficit in wondering about what people think of them and absorbing and learning from social feedback. They are often “fashion blind,” looking scruffy, or in the habit of making a habit of dressing with bland clothes that become a daily uniform to be worn. This was not Rodger. In My Twisted Story, his antidote to feeling inferior and invisible when he went off to college was to buy and wear name-brand clothes: “When I wore these to school, I saw I was wearing better jeans than most guys, and that made me have a slightly higher sense of self-worth. …Doing this started a new obsession for me. I became more obsessed with my appearance.”

He was so obsessed with his appearance that when he was in shock after being beaten up by partygoers whom he had provoked, limping around with a broken leg, his main concern was locating the Gucci sunglasses his mother had purchased for him. Rodger’s videos and personal story are rife with references that substantiate his status consciousness, materialism, and vanity, often with a racist and misogynistic bent. ASD individuals do not obsess over Hugo Boss and Armani threads, BMWs, winning the lottery, and insisting that one’s mother marry a multi-millionaire, all of which Rodger apparently did. They obsess about quirky topics like dinosaurs, Civil War memorabilia, names of exotic trains and planes, and the like.

Neither are those ascribed an ASD diagnosis consumed by feelings of envy. In fact, to feel envious in the first place there has to be conscious and unconscious social comparison going on, which is atypical of ASD people, who tend to come across as socially ill-attuned. Being psychologically caught up with admirable traits and social options that others have—that you feel deprived of—reflects a degree of social awareness and “mind reading” that should rule out ASD. No real digging around is necessary to uncover the role envy played in Rodger’s life.

Close to the beginning of his manifesto he confesses that “[j]ealousy and envy … those are two feelings that would dominate my entire life and bring me immense pain. The feelings of jealousy I felt at nine-years-old were frustrating, but they were nothing compared to how I would feel once I hit puberty and have to watch girls choosing other boys over me. Any problem I had at nine-years-old was nirvana compared to what I was doomed to face.”

Rodger’s envy was far beyond the outskirts of normal. It was not the sort of “benign” envy where a person is motivated to take active steps to procure life advantages and personal qualities others have that he or she also wishes to possess. It was “malignant” envy, the sort involving feeling superior to others and perfectly justified in showing contempt toward them for having life advantages and personal qualities that one feels entitled to, but does not possess. Others’ apparent material wealth, popularity, social ease, and active sex life, were a constant source of resentment for Rodger.

Over time, his desire to spoil others’ successes in these areas evolved into a full-blown megalomaniacal effort to assault and kill others whom he believed possessed the goods that he was entitled to, but felt deprived of. He admitted to his vengeful envy at a Katy Perry concert where he ogled those around him: “I couldn’t help but feel a bitter form of envy at all of the rich kids at the concert. They grew up in lavish mansions, indulged in excessive opulence, and will never have to worry about anything in their pleasurable, hedonistic lives. I would take great pleasure in watching those rich families burn alive.”

As his life went into a downwards spiral, Rodger’s private contempt for loving couples turned into outward aggression as he followed and threw iced tea at a couple he witnessed passionately kissing in a Domino’s Pizza restaurant. His malignant envy incrementally turned murderous. When told by his stepmother that his younger brother Jazz was signed by an agent and soon to star in television commercials, Rodger surmised this would lead to his brother becoming sexually attractive to girls, thus destined to lose his virginity, both of which Rodger himself failed at.

His thoughts turned barbaric: “It is very unfair how some boys are able to live such pleasurable lives while I never had any taste of it, and now it has been confirmed to me that my little brother will become one of them. He will become a popular kid who gets all the girls. Girls will love him. He will become one of my enemies. That was the day that I decided I would have to kill him on the Day of Retribution.”

Malignant envy at the very extreme end can fuel murderous fantasies and actions—the inner diatribe is one of “if I cannot gain or possess what I’m entitled to, yet people who are inferior to me somehow gain or possess these very qualities or experiences, those inferior people do not deserve to live.” These morbid thoughts might occur to a cunning, vindictive, pathological narcissist, not a socially naïve person with ASD.

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Enrico Gnaulati Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Pasadena, California. His work has been featured on Al Jazeera America, KPCC Los Angeles, and Salon. He is the author of Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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