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No evidence links autism with terrorism, but ill-judged statements and headlines will lead to stigma

Blurry image of police officer leads person in black to police car while crowd watches on
Articles suggesting a link between autism and radicalisation can lead to unfair targeting. UK Police/Alamy

Recent observations from Jonathan Hall QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, suggest that “a staggeringly high” number of autistic people are referred to the UK government’s anti-radicalisation Prevent programme.

The comments come ahead of Halls’ upcoming lecture about whether the criminal justice system is the right avenue for dealing with autistic people on the counter-terrorism scheme. But rather than leading with an explanation for these high figures, recent reports on the terror watchdog’s observations have since suggested there is a link between autistic people and radicalisation.

These remarks and the coverage of the story are indeed staggering to me as a researcher of autism spectrum conditions – but not in the way the authors intended.

At present, there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that autistic people are significantly more susceptible to radicalisation or terrorism. Yet most coverage of the issue fails to discuss the reasons behind autistic people being disproportionately reported to the scheme and instead focuses on limited aspects of the data.

Grossly oversimplified coverage like this risks serious damage to some of the most vulnerable in society. While it’s true that autistic people are more likely than non-autistic people to be over-represented in the Prevent scheme, this statement belies a much more complex story.

Studies show that autistic people are no more likely than non-autistic people to hold sympathetic views for violent protest or terrorism.

In fact, there is some evidence that terror networks are actually more reluctant to recruit people with any kind of mental health problem, perhaps due to societal stigma around mental illness and disability. The promotion of a link between autism and radicalisation is simply irresponsible.

‘Better safe than sorry’ – but at whose expense?

There are a number of autistic features which, if observed out of context and without expertise, may appear alarming. Autism is characterised by intense interests, the drive to collect facts and figures about a topic. This behaviour usually occurs in a highly “circumscribed” manner, meaning the pursuit and collection of facts is an enjoyable goal in itself, and may be completely unconnected to social relationships and ideological beliefs.

Studies also show that two-way understanding is difficult between autistic and non-autistic people, and that the verbal and non-verbal communication of autistic people is often misconstrued by non-autistic listeners. One in particular suggests that safeguarding officials (for example, in education and the NHS) often adopt a “better safe than sorry” approach and flag up behaviours that don’t really warrant referrals to counter-terrorism units.

Worryingly, when it comes to generating national statistics, investigators often look purely at this biased sample pool, into which autistic people, and those with mental illnesses, are more likely to have been unfairly placed.

To understand why this is bad science, imagine if I bought 100 bags of jelly babies and picked out all the purple ones. If I were to give someone who’d never had them before a bucket of these purple jelly babies, they’d be forgiven for thinking these sweets only come in blackcurrant flavour. But they’re sampling from a man-made pool, one subject to human biases (like my disinclination for purple jelly babies).

Those autistic people wrongly referred to Prevent might later be acquitted from the programme. Regardless of exoneration, though, people who experience false accusation are often alienated from their community, lose jobs, friends and partners, and suffer serious mental illness. Likewise, on a grand scale the damage is done – the numbers and the word are out.

Stigma is hurting autistic people

To think that the stigma caused by such statements can be offset with a little caveat – such as the one that appears at the end of the Guardian’s article – is naive because it doesn’t account for a crucial aspect of human psychology: our brains love a short-cut.

We live in a fast-paced world where we’re bombarded with information, so our brains use a lot of quick fixes, “rules of thumb”, so that we don’t have to think about everything so deeply. One of these is called the availability heuristic. When something has been brought to our attention, the memory of it stays close at hand, especially if it’s an emotive topic. Because of the availability of the memory, we then judge the phenomenon as much more common than it actually is.

Police officer directing traffic in New York while World Trade Center burns after two planes crash into the twin towers
Many were reluctant to travel by plane after attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 2001. Frances Roberts/Alamy

This “quick-fix” can add to the chaos and uncertainty after catastrophic events. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, people became extremely reluctant to fly because of the availability of thoughts about plane hijacking, and insurance firms rushed to add clauses refusing to cover terrorism risk.

In this case, when we think about autism, articles like these pop right back into our minds because they’re “available” to our brains, and we overestimate the frequency of radicalisation in autism.

Stigma against autism is ingrained from a young age and news articles only add to this. Non-autistic children view autistic peers as less friendly, and are less willing to include them. Though these explicit negative judgements taper with age, older children show implicit avoidance of autistic others. Adults, too, are less willing to interact with autistic people.

Stigma harms autistic people. They internalise it and experience low self-worth and poor mental health. It drives them to “camouflage” their autism, a process associated with depression, anxiety and even suicide.

My ongoing research suggests that over and above its association with depression, internalised stigma is actually associated with mental rehearsal of suicide plans. To put this in context, a stark reality is that autistic people are, by one estimate, three times more likely to end their own lives – and stigma is likely a contributing factor.

Terrorism is a real risk which concerns us all, but inflammatory, ill-informed headlines pose a silent, unjustified and very real danger to the autistic community. With best intentions, the “better safe than sorry” approach of inexperienced professionals, and the subsequent non-critical appraisal and sensational reporting of data, pass a different kind of injury onto a community who can little afford it.

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