Susceptibility to radicalisation in those with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Project Details


Evidence suggests that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is over-represented in lone-actor terrorist samples, compared to the general population. Clinicians are now considering the role that core traits of ASD may represent in an individual’s pathway into terrorism, including; tendency to hyperfocus, absence of meaningful attachments and inability to critically analyse radical ideology. There are currently very few resources aimed at helping to avoid/reduce hyperfocusing on topics which are linked to terrorism. Qualitative data derived from radicalised individuals with ASD, their parents/guardians and involved professionals will provide increase awareness of specific vulnerability and risk factors for radicalisation for persons with a diagnosis of ASD.

Empirical research on the prevalence of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) amongst those who commit acts of terrorism reaches uncertain conclusions; however there is evidence to suggest that ASD appears to be over-represented in lone-actor terrorist samples as compared to the general population (0.9% vs. 3.3%) (Corner et al., 2016). This prevalence has fuelled consideration within the literature of the existence of specific generative and associational risk factors which may increase the risk of offending amongst individuals with ASD (IM, 2016).
Autism Spectrum Disorders are characteristised by the triad of social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviours (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Repetitive behaviours can take the form of intense preoccupations or obsessions (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 1999). Clinicians are now considering the role that these core traits of ASD may represent in an individual’s pathway into terrorism and modus operandi (Al-Attar, 2016a). It has been suggested that individuals with ASD may be more vulnerable to being drawn into radical propaganda, including escalation into more involved commitment, due to their tendency to hyperfocus on their fascinations at the expense of other attachments and life interests (Al-Attar, 2016a). This tendency, alongside the absence of meaningful social connection and impairments in ability to critically analyse the philosophy and beliefs of radical groups, may collectively result in an individual with ASD being indoctrinated by terrorist ideology (Allely, 2016).
At present, there are very few resources for educators, parents/carers and people with ASD that are aimed at helping to avoid or reduce hyperfocusing on topics which are linked to terrorism, such as online radical propaganda which are in violation of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Nor is there any guidance on how to differentiate between individuals with ASD who are engaging with radical propaganda but do not identifying with radical ideology or have had the intention to cause harm, and those who do. Therefore it is important that future research attempts to understand how ASD may present as vulnerability and the ways in which ASD may contribute to an individual’s radicalisation or terrorist activity (Al-Attar, 2016).

This qualitative study includes a series of semi-structured interviews with identified persons with ASD who have experience of being ‘radicalised’ or being approached by radicals, alongside interviews with their parents/guardians and education/care/criminal justice professionals involved with these individuals. Participants have been identified across education, healthcare and criminal justice settings. Three topic guides have been developed to use in interviews covering domains such as access to online propaganda, experiences of radicalisation, support received following radicalisation detection, and recommendations for future practice. The data produced will be analysed thematically, and will be guided by the steps outlined in both Braun and Clarke (2006) and Green and Thorogood (2014).

Increased awareness of specific vulnerability and risk factors for parents, educational staff and care professionals will help to ensure early detection of a person with ASD developing radical ideology and may ensure that exploitation and criminalisation of individuals with ASD is minimised.
Effective start/end date1/07/1931/08/19


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