A few days ago an article was published in the Daily Mail in which Clare Allely, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Salford, stated that she thought autistic people might be at more risk of being radicalised and explained why she thought that was. I will cover some of the points made in the piece and talk about why I disagree with the article itself, but it might be worth you having a read of it before or after reading what I have to say about it. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4633128/Autistic-people-risk-radicalised.html
Let’s start with the opening lines. First of all the article talks about people with `traits` of autism. Right from the start this is vague, and unhelpful language. If you know anything about autism then you know that you are either autistic or you are not. You can’t have people with `traits` of autism, but what you can have is people who act in a way that is stereotypically thought of as autistic. What I mean by this is people who would be classed as `loners`; those people who do not have a lot of friends and tend to spend most of their time on their own in their rooms. Yes some autistic people might be like that, but this in itself is not a sign of autism.
The article then goes on to explain what terrorism is, and that the last few years have seen a rise in so called `lone-wolf` attacks where an individual commits an act of violence due to being radicalised without necessarily being part of a wider group. It lists the types of terrorist, and then jumps in to explaining how being autistic can make you more likely to participate in terror activities. The aim being to “ ..illustrate how some of the symptoms of ASD can ‘help’ make a pathway towards being inspired to act on behalf of a terrorist cause, join a terrorist organisation, engage in directed attacks – or indeed carry out lone wolf terrorism.”
Now where to start with this? First off there are no `symptoms` of autism – autism is not a disease. This might sound like a small point in the wider scope of the article, but when as an autistic person you hear words like `traits` or `symptoms` being thrown around it’s hard for you to take anything else that is being said seriously.
Then we have the so-called `symptoms` themselves; the things that apparently make autistic people more likely to go out and murder innocent people. The article makes the point that autistic people can often be lonely and isolated and feel a need to belong, as well as having a tendency to hyper-focus, which if they focus on the wrong thing can lead to an obsession. Let’s break these down, starting with the last. Yes autistic people often, but not always do have a special interest or more than one, and often we do dedicate a lot of time to said interest. But why would taking an interest in something lead to a loss of feeling or a desire to kill? I know a lot of non-autistic people with a keen interest in serial killers: they know all the names, read books on them and watch hours upon hours of TV about them. But this in no way means they want to hurt anyone let alone kill them. It means they have an interest in a dark subject. Of course this is different from looking up terrorist videos online, but my point is – autistic or not – having an interest in people who do bad things does not mean a loss of all human feeling, or a desire to go out and replicate the things read about. Autistic people are making the point more and more that special interests can be, and often are a good thing, and most of the time if they are not positive per say, they at least are not negative. But too often they are still talked about by professionals as `obsessions` and treated like something that at best should be tolerated, but never embraced. Linking them to an interest in terrorism and acting as if they can be the first step on a path to murder is hardly helping autistic people fight the old and out-dated negative image of autism itself, and special interests in particular.
What about the issues of autistic people being lonely and isolated?
It is true that some autistic people can find themselves in this situation. I have spoken to, and know many autistic people who do most of their communicating via their computer as they find it hard to go out and interact with people face to face. I myself don’t go out and socialize much, and I never have.
I understand the underlying idea that if you find yourself alone, and not fitting in you can end up falling in with a `bad crowd` so to speak. You can end up changing yourself to fit in with the people around you, whether you’re autistic or not. But again making the jump from that to someone being willing to kill people, and then die themselves just to gain a bit of respect from someone on the internet seems a bit far-fetched to say the least.
In fact autistic people from what I have seen (and I don’t have statistics, I am just going off the hundreds of autistic people I have spoken to, or read about) seem much more likely to hurt themselves when they sink in to the depths of loneliness. Depression can set in and people can turn to self-medicating with drugs, drink or self harm as can non-autistic people. Again I am not saying this is the case for all autistic people, but it is much much more likely than someone planning to deal with their loneliness by committing murder.
The article has no weight to it whatsoever. It says that because autistic people can be lonely and need to fit in they are more likely to become terrorists, and yet all it offers us to back that up is two cases of autistic people becoming terrorists. I don’t for one second dispute the fact that there will be autistic terrorists as I feel that there are autistic people in every walk of life – both good and bad. But to make the headline-grabbing claim that autistic people are more likely to be radicalised is just foolish and lazy writing.
But it’s not just lazy.
To make the jump from saying some autistic people might be lonely and looking to fit in, to them being willing to go out and commit murder is a strange jump. I worry that the only real way to make such a jump is to accept the defunct idea that autistic people don’t feel empathy. This is an idea you still see pushed by professionals in some places despite it being outdated and wrong. Autistic people sometimes do find it hard to express how they feel, or even understand it themselves, but that’s not the same as not valuing human life, and being willing to take it. In fact lots of autistic people are overly emphatic, and are profoundly affected by what they see on the news. This might not always be visible, or even understood by the autistic person themselves (it might just come out in a sudden bad/low mood).
Autistic people have been fighting to get rid of the idea that we are unfeeling and cold-hearted for years, and saying that we are more likely than non-autistic people to become involved in terror is not helping that fight at all.
But it is nothing new; each time there is a school/college shooting in the USA what is one of the first things we hear? The shooter was `kind of a loner`, and then within hours that changes to `perhaps autistic?`. Why? Because he spent a lot of time alone and was `weird`, and apparently that’s all you need to be to be classed as autistic. It’s just something else that makes the killer `other`. In the shock people cast around for something, anything to help themselves make sense of the senseless violence. And they light upon the idea of autism. Autism is different. Not all children are like this so what are people meant to think when they hear that “ if your child’s class has an autistic kid in it, he is the most likely one here to start shooting”. That might not be what’s said, but if you hear autism talked about in the wake of each and every shooting it’s what people start to think. I know of one case where a mass shooter has been autistic (not saying there is just one, just that’s the one I know about) but I know of a lot more where autism has been talked about despite the killer being dead and undiagnosed.
Autism has nothing whatsoever to do with violence. And yet we keep hearing it spoken about as part of the motivation for killers. If we start hearing it talked about each time there is a terrorist attack, to where could this lead? At best it will lead to a more negative and fearful view of autism and autistic people – putting the public image of autism back years, and undoing a lot of the good work done by autistic people to promote a more positive, and realistic view of autism.
At worst it could lead to the public viewing autistic people as a danger, and autistic people suffering because of this. We have seen Muslims being attacked due to the idea promoted by some of the media that they are `all terrorists`, or `sympathise with terror`. It might seem like a jump to imagine the same thing happening to autistic people down the line, but there is already an idea in the media that we are dangerous due to the constant linking of autism and shootings. If the same starts to happen with terror attacks then given the current climate, and desire to place blame, it would not be wholly unlikely to see autistic people being shunned, or even attacked.
Also, without wanting to turn this in to a personal attack, I do find it worrying that the writer of this article teaches the next generation of psychologists. When you see a point being made in the national press with so little weight to it, that can cause so much harm to the people it talks about, you do worry about the fact that the next generation of professionals might believe it, and have the ideas generated by such stories in the back of their minds when working with autistic people.
The article claims that it is going to offer advice on how to help autistic people avoid being radicalised. This is apparently the justification for writing about such a topic. But in fact the article hardly says a word about how to stop this supposed problem. It simply makes a lot of wild claims, talks up the idea, and then ends. It is not as if this is a real documented problem and the article is there to provide help. In fact the article expressly states that there is no evidence for the claims that it makes and the research in to autism and radicalisation is `in it`s infancy`. Given that this is explicitly stated toward the begining of the article it seems even stranger that towards the end there is a call for all terrorist suspects to be assessed for autism. It is highly irresponsible to make a call for action as big as this while at the same admitting you have no hard evidence to back up the claims that this call for action is based on.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder may be vulnerable to ISIS propaganda
- Autistic people are more isolated and lonely and so may be easier to target
- Their obsessive and compulsive tendencies could also put them at a higher risk
Findings suggest people involved with terrorism should be evaluated for ASD
So if people with ASD could be at higher risk, how can we protect them from falling under the spell of terror organisations such as the so-called Islamic State?
I know this blog is a few days late in responding to the article, and some of you might feel that I should have ignored it instead of drawing more attention to it, but as I have tried to make clear I do not feel that the article is the whole of the problem. I feel it is part of a wider issue where autism is linked to violence, and autistic people are demonized. And once a group of people are demonized it changes the way society views them, and leaves them vulnerable to abuse and even physical attacks. Autistic people are misunderstood, and vulnerable enough as it is.
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