Are autistic people at a greater risk of being radicalised?: My response.

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.

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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7 thoughts on “Are autistic people at a greater risk of being radicalised?: My response.

  1. Great article. Excellent response to a poor theory without any evidence to support it.
    Shame on Clare Allely for publishing this and then allowing the DM to do so.
    As Paddy- Joe says this attempt to link killers / terrorism to autistic people is dangerous and a Psychologist even an academic one should know this.
    Bravo Paddy- Joe

  2. Good article, and very well written, and clearly necessary. There are some points I should clarify, though, as a psychologist.

    “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.”

    Well … yes, you can have traits of autism BUT there’s a massive disconnect between what psychologists and geneticists mean by the word ‘trait’ and what the general public thinks the word means. So, firstly, let’s look at a psychological use of the word ‘trait’.

    In psychology, a trait is defined as a predisposition to act or think or feel in certain ways. It’s really that simple. The term is is predisposition: this is not a deterministic thing but a probabillistic thing, and it is based on links at the genetic level to psycho-anatomical and psycho-physiological development and the interactions between these two aspects of being and the environments in which one spends any great lenght of time. There is a definite link to genetic transfer between generations here, and this is that “s/he gets that from so-and-so on his/her mother’s side” and so on. So what does a geneticist mean by a trait?

    Geneticists define a trait as being an observable, measureable charactieristic of an organism, be that organism a fungus, a unicellular animal or a major mammal. All of these things have characteristics that are often peculiar a given group of organisms to which it is similar. Examples of traits include hair/eye/skin colour (as in, the actual colours; eye colour in general is a ‘character’), height, intelligence and so on. These things are linked to units of inter-generational transmission: genes. And the degree to which the expression of a trait varies statistically in any given generation is linked to the degree to which that trait varies statistically in the previous generation through an explanatory concept known as heritability. This is not the straight-forward idea of percentage chance that person A will be blue-eyed if that person’s parents are not both blue-eyed, or whatever; nor is it the idea that X% of the the trait comes from the parents and that Y% comes from the environment. It’s to do with how much of the variability in that trait can be explained by genetic factors. And this is a massively different thing. We talk about this in terms of a heritability index: HI.

    We know that autism is highly heritable; we know that being autistic increases the odds that one’s child(ren) will be autistic too. It doesn’t guarantee that outcome, but it gives an idea of probability of outcome. As best we know, there are many ways in which this outcome can come about. But this explanation deals just with the inherited genes issue, and leaves aside epigenetic, gene mutation and imprinting matters (these are best left to a geneticist or biochemist, and I’m an engineering physicist turned educational psychologist). I should point out here that, as a psychologist who is himself autistic, I have some serious issues with the idea that autism could come under the study area known as teratology: the study of teratogens – monster-makers. This is not about monsters. This is about specific, genetically originated (but somewhat maleable) behavioural, cognitive and affective traits that comprise an autistic phenotypy (a phenotypy being the observable effects of a set of genes on the origination of certain characters as these genes interact with environments).

    Now, this may seem rather long-winded but – contrary to how Twitter would like it – science doesn’t do sound-bites. So it’s seriously important to understand what words actually mean when scientist use them. Now – I’m going to switch to part of the practical issue of diagnosis.

    Often, one sees assessment and diagnosis reports giving ‘diagnoses’ such as ‘autistic traits/features/etc.’ – and I can tell you now: anybody suggesting that anybody can be said to have ‘autistic traits/features’ without attracting an actual diagnosis of autism is talking utter bollocks. This is because autism is defined in terms of sets of traits – particular phenotypies of characters (generally behavioural, since we can reliably observe and measure these), and these traits *when they co-occur as required by the diagnostic criteria* can only mean that the presence of autistic traits implies that the psycho-educational or clinical diagnosis MUST be autism. This is because no trait is, in and of itself, peculiar to autism. That is something for parents to use against resistant local authorities; it can be found in Glenys Jones’ text “Educational Provision for Children with Autism and Asperger syndrome: meeting their needs”. It’s a 2002 publication and is published by David Fulton Publishing.

    So, yes – there are indeed ‘traits of autism’, but they’re not traits of autism without there being a diagnosis of autism. And, if they can be identified as traits of autism, then the diagnosis of autism MUST be made.

    Hopefully, that clears that matter up.

    Now, onto the matter of 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.”

    Well, as I’ve explained above, the traits bit is accurate, on the proviso that there is a diagnosis – because that’s how these things are defined. And then you get into this ‘symptoms’ bit – and I’m glad I’m not the only person pissed off by this fucking word in connection with autism. The traits are things you can see: observable behavioural stuff. They can be classified and counted. They are the basis upon which a diagnosis is made. They are SIGNS.

    A ‘symptom’ is a subjective, non-observable thing that is subjectively experienced. And it is a subjective experiential part of a disease or an illness. And autism is NOT a bloody illness!


    And – yes, I’m having difficulties taking the lecturer’s points seriously, because she failed to understand the difference that you and I clearly are aware of.

    Now – this is the point in time by which I’ve done what I said I’d do in the comment I left in twitter. I hope that this makes sense, and enables you to engage more clearly with the science stuff. The rest of your blog article is pretty spot on. You’ve not seen the statistics, but I can tell you – having seen them – that your remarks here are accurate enough for a blog response to what is a poorly considered article that was jumped on and twisted by a hack-rag. Thank you for writing this article: it was necessary. And you did it with much more eloquence than would have been present had I written a response.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment and share your knowledge. I take your point about traits. I think the original article was using the word in terms of people having traits but not being autistic. Not sure if that was what they meant but thats the feeling I got from them. I might not have explained it fully in the blog but that was why I took issue with it but like you say when used in the correct way it makes much more sense. I think a lot of people feel that way about the use of the word symptoms I know that I for one fully understand how angry it makes you! Like you said using words like symptoms just makes no sense at all and gives totally the wrong impression of autism. Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment. 🙂

      1. Ah, you’re welcome. No worries.

        The way I see it with what the lecturer was saying is that the public tends to have a different set of definitions for things. When we in science really should take care to explain what we’re saying properly. It’s not a process helped at all when the likes of the Daily Fail pick it up. The onus is on scientists to be clear. I can understand why people get upset with things.

  3. Thank you for sharing your opinion on this article. I regularly find myself dumbfounded at the level of distrust and prejudice against autism in the “normal” public. Does Ms Allely not realize that her unfounded opinions are unlikely to be helpful to autistic people? Will the people who read this article realize that a sample of 2 individuals in a very, very large group of (NT) radicals is hardly statistically significant? Hmmm.

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