The Radical Right Is Targeting Neurodivergent Groups

Extremists have long targeted neurodivergent groups. Are they now more at risk? The answer isn't that simple.
Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Bàrbara Molas, Ph.D., is Head of Publishing at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and a Research Fellow with the Canadian network for research on terrorism, security and society.

For years, researchers of the far right have studied the social and psychological factors that play a role in the radicalization of children and young individuals. Difficulty socializing and a tendency to experience neglect and isolation, for example, have been pointed out as common features among ‘at risk’ of radicalization groups.

As a consequence, those with mental health disorders –especially neuropsychiatric ones– like autism and Asperger syndrome (often simply ASD), which frequently involve a certain degree of such social-related issues, have often been seen as potentially vulnerable by researchers and practitioners alike. Due to COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions including lockdown, social distancing, quarantine, and reduced opportunities for social interaction, isolation has dramatically increased – and so has the risk of far-right radicalization.

In this context, practitioners insist that there is a palpable association between autistic individuals and the potential for criminal offenses, as these are most at danger of radicalization. But is this hypothesis correct?

Up to now, academia has failed to provide conclusive data that confirms there is indeed a relationship between ASD and extremism. This is partly because some of the evidence collected by practitioners is filed and not publishable, as it contains confidential data under the protection of medical, legislation and governmental agreements. As a result, “there has been relatively little research (including case studies) examining individuals with ASD who engage in terrorism”, and the scientific community tends to conclude that instances of individuals with autism supporting or engaging in terrorism are rare.

Yet, a more recent study led by the Holland Bloorview’s research institute suggests that even though radicalization is experienced by “a very small subset of the autistic population”, there is an increasing number of “reports from media and clinicians [which indicate] that autistic people are participating in internet sites known to be associated with online hate.” Given this, there is no doubt that recognizing traits of a mental health disorder could be crucial to planning interventions.

As pointed out by the Radicalisation Awareness Network: “We can’t dismiss mental health disorders as a risk factor leading people on the path to violence or violent extremism”. On the other hand, by insisting upon the association between autism and terrorism there is also the risk of oversimplifying and stigmatizing people with ASD. In fact, as leading Canadian researcher on the relationship between autism and radicalization Dr. Melanie Penner has argued, “people with autism are certainly more likely to be on the receiving end of online hate, cyberbullying, [as well as] real life bullying.” It follows that we need to better understand the implication of the vulnerabilities that result from these mental health disorders before approaching the available data concerning ASD and extremism.

Autistic people, specifically those who are socially isolated, often have a pressing need “to be valued and recognised as part of a friendship group”, says the British counterterrorism organization Prevent. Some people on the autism spectrum are also keen on “masking to fit in with others, adopting behaviours and ideologies to build relationships without considering the implications.” As a consequence, an autistic individual could embrace extremist narratives for the only purpose of belonging rather than because of an ideological affiliation.

In addition, evidence suggests “that some autistic people engage with digital technologies and social media to a significant degree as a response to differences around communication and interaction in social situations”. Accordingly, the amount of extremist propaganda and conspiracy theories that autistic people may be exposed to increases dramatically as their time in front of the screen does.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, common traits of autism such as “challenges around understanding people’s motives and intentions” coupled with difficulties surrounding social interaction and a tendency to isolate have made autistic users a clear target – although not a new one. John Elder Robinson, a co-chair of the Neurodiversity Work Group at the U.S-based College of William & Mary who has AS himself, says the term “weaponized autism” was used on the white supremacist site Stormfront, which was shut down in 2017 after the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville (Virginia) that resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a counter-protester.

The idea is to suggest “that autistic people are logical and robotic.” Robinson explains that due to being “socially disabled by virtue of autism … we [are] being led down a path that perhaps benefits other people’s agendas at our expense” without even realizing it is happening.

This implies that, as already argued by Dick Sobsey in Violence and Disability: An Annotated Bibliography (1995), “rather than being more likely to engage in offending or violent behaviour, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may actually have an increased risk of being the victim rather than the perpetrator of violence”. Or, in the words of psychologist Clare S. Allely in 2016, “ASD may influence, but does not cause, an individual to commit extreme violent acts such as a mass shooting episode”.

Indeed, most individuals with ASD do not offend just because they have the disorder, but instead, as a result of the increased difficulty of dealing with (or managing) it in addition to other challenging personal circumstances. This means that, if radicalized, individuals with ASD should potentially be looked at as victims, rather than perpetrators, of extremism.

This is, however, a controversial conclusion to draw as, following this argument, terrorists who have mental health disorders may (in certain countries) avoid higher penalties by claiming insanity or mental illness which, understandably, can lead to an uproar. An example of this occurred in 2011 in Oslo after Anders Breivik, who bombed Oslo Government Quarter before executing 69 people (mainly teenagers) at a Labour Youth summer camp on Utøya Island, was initially declared insane and unfit to stand trial. The public outcry that followed in response led to the Norwegian Court ordering further tests, which this time around concluded that Breivik was sane and so fit to stand trial.

Charlotte Heath-Kelly, Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies (University of Warwick), argues that the associations between learning disabilities or mental illnesses and terrorism are a consequence of the society’s need to “assume the perpetrator is incapacitated or ‘not like us’ somehow”. Heath-Kelly explains that by relating autistic conditions to violence, for example, mainstream society offloads its discomfort towards atrocities we don’t understand.

This hypothesis also allows society to define pathways towards terrorism “as interruptible and preventable”, or, in other words as manageable and predictable. “The blurring of ASD/mental illness with terrorism is the result”, observes Heath-Kelly. Still, such associations are not without foundation. Available data refers to a percentage of 3 to 4% of terrorist offenders being diagnosed with autism, which is considerably higher than the proportion of autistic people among the population at large.

In my own research on COVID-19 and far-right extremism, autism appears as a common diagnosis among young radicalized individuals, and most practitioners continue to point to it as a contributing factor. But the context matters. Experts explain that lockdown, social distancing measures, and an overwhelmed (and underfunded) health care system, have deprived autistic individuals from working on their already fragile capacity to socially interact and join communities that have the proper supporting measures to protect them. An increasing amount of time spent online has only worsened this, with autistic groups looking for alternative ways to “matter and belong”.

The existence of a causal relationship between autism and extremism is inconclusive. What seems clear is that ADS merely contributes to another set of conditions that overall facilitate radicalization. This is important to say because it helps to stress that, as indicated above, autism and other mental health disorders are only part of the problem rather than the problem itself. Thus, when processing an individual diagnosed with ASD, it is crucial to consider how autism has contributed to their vulnerability towards radicalization. Taking this into account will allow for an improved justice system and more efficient intervention and rehabilitation plans.

Finally, in the midst of COVID-19, it is essential to provide online users, especially young and vulnerable groups, with the tools to develop digital resilience to extremist propaganda and recruitment. Only support will help to build a safer world for those who have a mental health disorder and for us all. Projecting blame and suspicion towards those who have autism, on the other hand, risks turning victims into tools vulnerable to manipulation. And that is exactly what the far right wants.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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