Tag Archives: thinking

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. 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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Autism and the stress of a simple walk

I have written a lot about sensory overload, and the impact this has on me and other autistic people, but there might be an idea that to get this overload I have to go somewhere busy, or noisy. This is not the case. In fact just the act of walking my dogs in the streets for fifteen minutes can be full of so much sensory and social stress that I become overloaded by the time I get back home. I would like to use this blog to explain how even something that sounds so small can be so full of stress. So let’s use the idea of walking the dogs as an example for now – the point being that I don’t have to go anywhere; I am not going shopping or to a meeting at the end of the walk, in fact I am just walking around and and then going home. So why is that stressful?

  1. Build up: There is still the build-up to going out even if I am only going on a small walk. I have to decide when to go, plan for it, get myself ready, and know that I will have to deal with all the stress that I encounter when I am out there. For some things you might be able to go out early in the morning, and get them over with, but other times you might have to wait and the longer you wait the more the anxiety about having to go at all builds up. It can get to a point, for me at least, where if I am not able to go out until the early evening – even if it’s for something I want to do and something I know will hardly take any time at all – I have had so long for the anxiety to build up that I would do almost anything not to have to go.
  2. Noise: The outside world is noisy: be it birds, cars, planes or people, almost anywhere you live someone or something is making noise. These are just the background noises of life, but sometimes, depending on how I feel, even they can be too much. In the course of walking down one road with my dogs I might have to contend with the sound of drilling, of a plane going over head, of people walking by talking, of music coming from cars and the sound of the cars themselves passing by. Because for non-autistic people these sounds just fade in to the background I think it’s easy for them to forget just how much noise there is outside on a normal day, and how quickly that can build up in terms of sensory input. It’s worth pointing out here that a lot of autistic people deal with this by using headphones, with or with out music playing.
  3. Crossing the roads: I have not had the chance to talk to a lot of other autistic people about this one, but I know that it is a real issue for me. Over the years I have known some autistic people who did not feel a sense of danger, and would just run out in to the road (some of whom have even been hit by cars/buses) but that is not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the awkwardness of crossing a road. When I get to a road no longer can I walk with my head down, not looking at anyone. I can’t stay lost in my own thoughts, blocking out the world around me. No, I have to come fully back in to reality. I have to look up and be aware, stop blocking things out, look around me and try and pick out the sounds of cars approaching from the noise all around me. I have to think and make decisions on the spot; do I cross now or do I wait? But it’s not just making that call, it’s all the things going on around me as I make it. There might be other people waiting alongside me; are they crossing? No? Why not? Is it wrong of me to try and cross now? Yes, they are crossing? Should I go too, or wait here? Should I have gone then? If the road is busy do I just stand here and wait, or keep walking and cross later? What should I be doing now? Am I doing the right thing or not? OK, you might say that is being silly, that none of it matters, and that if you’re unsure what to do just wait till there are no cars and cross – staying safe is all that matters. Fine, but that’s not so easy when you have a brain that will overthink everything without giving you much say in the matter. Then when you do get to the point of crossing the road there is the interaction with the drivers. Cars come to a stop and you have to look at the driver and work out what they are trying to communicate to you. It’s hard enough to read what someone is saying via non-verbal communication when your face to face and have the time to think about it, but trying to do it from a few feet away through a pain of glass when you`re in a situation where you are expected to move quickly (at least by the waiting driver!) it becomes even harder. You have to work out if they are slowing down to let you go or not. Are you waiting too long when they are letting you go? Are you misreading what they mean and stepping out when you should not be? Again the main question for me is am I doing something wrong here? And again the answer comes back, who cares? It’s not like the interaction with the driver means anything; it comes and goes and everyone moves on with their lives. I don’t care in the long run what the people in the cars think of me, and I know that even if they did think anything it would be forgotten in the space of seconds. But that’s the point, it’s not what I know to be true in my head that has the impact, it’s the way my brain over thinks that brings on stress from even these seemingly meaningless interactions. Overthinking brings on more stress and anxiety, so much so that it can get to the point where the worry about crossing the road sets in before I even get to them, no matter how much I know on logical level that it is a silly thing to worry about.
  4. Walking past people: Another point that relates to overthinking is when you pass someone in the street. There is little to no interaction with them; perhaps they might smile or say hello as they pass, but that’s about it. But if like me your anxiety makes you over-think things you will find that as soon as you see someone walking down the road in your direction you will start to worry about what to do. Should you look at them? Will that seem as if you are staring at them? If you look away will it look as if you are avoiding looking at them? As if you think there is something wrong with them, or are passing some kind of judgement? If you look away then look back up will it look strange? At what point do you step aside to let them pass if need be? Does any of this matter? The answer to that last question at least is a simple one. No. The chances are if someone walking down the street notices you at all they think nothing of you, and if they do it’s not like you would ever know or be able to guess. But again I must go back to the fact that just understanding this on a logical level does not do anything to lessen the impact that it has. It’s all about what’s in your head, and the fact is that unlike noise from the outside world, you can’t do anything to shut it off.

I hope that the points listed above give you some insight in to why even a short work with no big social interactions such as going to the shops, or going to work can be a stressful and anxiety provoking experience for autistic people. It’s not to say every walk will be like that, or that every autistic person feels the same things I do, but it might be that some of you out there understand how I feel. For me what can be so hard about the whole thing is knowing that apart from the noise, the rest of it is in my head. People are not judging me as I walk down the street or try to cross a road, and even if they were I would never know. But when your brain is pushing you in to thinking certain things and feeling anxiety and stress it can feel like there is not much you can do about it. When you add that to the noise that surrounds you as you walk down the street, and the stress and anxiety that is a part of the build-up to going out you can see how even a small walk can lead to a sensory and emotional overload.

It’s worth keeping in mind that an autistic person does not have to be in a room packed with people talking at the top of their voices to become overloaded. Something as small as walking the dog can be so full of anxiety and stress, and lead to so much overthinking that it can bring about an overload that might come as a surprise to the autistic person, and those around them. And yet when you break down what goes in to even a small trip outside you start to see that for a lot of autistic people it is not so small after all.

Let me know what you think in the comments, as how ever much I try, I can only really speak for myself.

You can find my book here  : http://www.jkp.com/uk/communicating-better-with-people-on-the-autism-spectrum.html/ 

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