Hello everyone. In this blog I will discuss extremism, violence – including violence against women – and radicalisation. Therefore, if you are unwilling or unable to read this blog – I completely understand. Not every blog is for you, there’s nothing wrong with that. Watch my co-chairing a session for Autistica’s Research Festival this year instead:
Please share this video around, this is important research and these researchers deserve to get a larger platform.
Most of this blog is about the radicalisation of young white autistic men, particularly to the far-right. Regarding radicalisation to far-right islamic groups, there is less data (again, please prove me wrong) – since for those young men, mainstream culture’s problem with them isn’t that they’re disabled, it’s that they’re brown. Regarding young women, they are far more vulnerable for relational abuse and partner-violence. Many autistic girls and women flee into relationships with men who take advantage of them. These topics need to be addressed by someone with far greater knowledge of these topics and I’m too white, non-believing, cis and male to be that person. I am, however, white. These are my people, this is my community, I have to take responsibility.
So, here we go.
On Friday, when I was drafting this blog, a young man with autism and learning disabilities was sentenced to at least sixteen years in prison for the murder of a woman in Lancashire, UK in 2019. He is currently 17 years old.
Now, I am not going to go into the specifics around this crime, in order to protect all involved, particularly the family of the victim. I am not going to contend with the judge’s ruling or any of the facts involved in this horrific crime. I can’t and should not intervene here.
What I can say however, is that the coverage has been indicative of certain well-known tropes.
A quote from the judge herself clearly lays out her perspective: “[while the defendant’s] autism had a significant impact on his communication skills and reduced his capacity for empathy, it certainly did not cause him to be violent.” This is a quote from the BBC website, taken directly from the judge. I suppose the amendment at the end is the “not all Muslims”-equivalent. Great. I’ll put ‘not inherently violent’ on my business card.
That’s sarcasm, if you wanted to know.
The situation has been reoccurring for years, like a bad dream. Someone from a discriminated-against identity commits or plans a horrific crime, which allows bigotry against this group to flourish, only to increase societal discrimination against this very group.
I am talking about autistic people, though I could also be talking about refugees, Muslims, people of colour, trans and queer people; but that should be of no surprise to anyone.
Regarding autistic people, the narrative in the media is still one that flips on its axis between pity and fear. If we are not ignored, we are seen as pitiable and disempowered. Yet ‘autistic’ is still a byword for ‘lacking empathy’. The general public, when they think about autistic people at all, see us as evil masterminds taking over the world. Steve Jobs is not an autistic hero – perhaps an example of people with antisocial personality disorder utilising their issues for personal financial gain; but not an autistic hero.
A few years back, Roseanne Barr used her “coming out” as autistic after her vocal support of Donald Trump, as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It was the Kevin Spacey-playbook. If anything, it shows how autistic identity is weaponised just as much as queerness.
As well as bigots, we are also still school shooters. Much was made of the Columbine shooters purportedly being autistic – or, for that matter, gay. They were not, but that didn’t matter. Many autistic people I know have researched these two young men, because of the “explanations” for their violence that were shared around in the media; metal music, video games, mental illness and autism. They feel kinship with them, as they too have been subject to years of exclusion and bullying. The reason given is that they are weird, creepy and antisocial, so deserve the punishments meted out to them.
Add to that the idea of autistic people as sex pests, as the case surrounding an autistic person with learning disabilities from last year shows. The subtext here is that autistic men who seek sex do so with a biological inability to understand consent. This, again, because of that whole empathy-thing. See: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/oct/03/man-who-does-not-understand-consent-has-right-to-pursue-sex-court-rules
Underlying is the idea that autistic people cannot receive consent, whatever we do, because of what we are; furthering fear and eugenicist ideas.
Then there’s the I-word. Incels. An incel (or involuntary celibate) are cis men who are usually young and mostly straight, describing themselves as biologically inferior to men who have – in their view – free access to women’s bodies. This is due to biological ‘luck of the draw’ in those men (whose skulls have a more attractive shape, for instance) and of course because of women being in some way inherently disinclined to fulfil their basic function in life – which is to have sex with them.²
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that these views are disgusting and that no-one should have them. I thought I’d restate the obvious, so you wouldn’t get confused at my intentions here.
Now, it’s easy to again play the lack-of-empathy card. In mainstream narratives, somehow, through the magic of biological determinism, autistic young men are driven to these ideas. But they don’t arise out of nowhere. In fact, these young men are driven to those beliefs because of a lack of dignity that society deems worthy to impose on young men with identical status – but for their autism.
That hurts. This causes boys to become bitter even before their teens. It also leads to greater masking and imitating the cruelties of the playground in their treatment of other autistic people – just so they aren’t the one at the bottom of the ladder. In her video on the socio-cultural phenomenon of Cringe, Natalie Wynn describes how internalised ableism can manifest itself as cruelty, particularly online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRBsaJPkt2Q Again, huge content warning, including for beauty.
Yet, if these ideas about women’s bodies weren’t already commonplace in our society, then these autistic boys wouldn’t mould their identities to fit them – so they in their turn can fit in.
The point about empathy is also, simply, false. It’s what kept me from self-identifying as autistic for decades. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel it enough- I felt far too much of it. These cultural misunderstandings have contributed to severe bigotry and these young men live it every day. But don’t take it from me, professor Geoff Bird is an authority on empathy, what we generally understand it to be and what it should actually mean. I couldn’t do justice to his conclusions but essentially: autism and empathy actually coexist significantly, even higher than with non-autistics. The issue is not with autism inherently, but with a common co-occurring condition: alexithymia.
Alexithymia is an incapacity to read and describe emotions and sensations in others and even oneself. More autistic people have alexithymia than neurotypicals, but it is neither exclusive or as fundamental to autism as currently believed. Nor is alexithymia a monolithic ‘can’t‘: I, for instance, have stronger alexithymia when I’m already tired. Empathy, though, is a slippery concept that excludes those the user does not deem capable of it. Even people with severe alexithymia can feel and express sympathy and support to whomever they think need it – empathetic outcomes without the biological imperative. And nearly all act in this way – this imperative towards kindness exists in all autistics, until it gets knocked out of us¹.
Despite wilful mainstream ignorance due to the lack of autistic voices in the media, the reverse is true. We are hugely empathetic and vulnerable to abuse, even more than our peers. We are consistently punished and humiliated during our school days. I’m paraphrasing Tony Attwood here; by the age of three, the autistic child has lost their sense of value in themselves, as themselves and is forced to start adapting to the world around them. This is painful stuff and creates manifold problems later down the line.
In short: autistic people internalise the pain society gives them, then either let it consume them or try to externalise that. As a black-white thinker myself, even I can see that is no choice to be making. If you believe that autistic people have to lean in, simply take the pain and internalise it, just to not upset anyone else? All I can say is good luck to you. Don’t share the blog, don’t slam the door on your way out. We need something different. We need a society that’s less cruel.
I have been shouting about the problems of radicalisation for years, talking about how autistic people, more than others, need education on socio-cultural history. On privilege and power structures, the history of racism and ableism and the understanding that they are one and the same. I worked in a school for autistic young people. They were obsessed with power. Some of them were finding themselves in less-savoury parts of the internet. They were all boys, they were all white.
The far-right utilises their fear and nihilism to do its dirty work. These boys were only tools to a political movement that purports to give them dignity, to only take it away when they are no longer useful. This does not redeem these boys from falling down the rabbit hole, but it does illuminate how they are led down that path. They do not choose to engage in far right politics out of a misplaced sense of inferiority, as neurotypical white cishet men would. Their sense of inferiority may be socially constructed, but is still completely true. Because of their biology, they are not allowed to be a part of society.
The point I am making is that if you dehumanise someone enough, within a society that runs on exclusion, racism and dehumanisation of the other – you are creating a pressure cooker. Autistic people can struggle to see an ‘outside’ to the way society is already organised. Let me rephrase that: everyone does, non-autistics are just better at ignoring injustice, specifically towards others.
Minority stress is real. We live in a society that is fundamentally unfair. Growing up autistic in a neurotypical world is painful. If you are neurotypical and don’t think you benefit from being in a world that glorifies the way you operate, then maybe you’re a part of that. Just know that the fact you’re reading a blog to inform yourself about disability rights and injustice is a great first step in addressing that.
I believe we should fight for justice and understanding. We need appropriate education. Autistic citizenship has to be formed by autistics, for autistics. I have friends who at times in their lives were radicalised. They have escaped that. Some of us have not been so lucky.
I also believe that we, as a community, should own what happened on Friday. Our community does produce dangerous people. In that, we are the same as every other community. We can’t fall for the “not all autistics”-narrative, or “he does not represent us”. The fact is, we live in a world where the worst of us does represent us. That’s not right and that’s not fair, but that’s what it is and what we need to fight. All autistics live in a society that punishes us for who we are, whether we act out or not. I don’t know the history of this particular young man and the hows and whys of what he did. I shouldn’t need to know. But I do know that he faced discrimination because of his background, his disabilities and his being neurodivergent.
The issue with white cismale autistics is that they dive into the few things that give them power: their gender, their race and their heterosexuality. In diving into our whiteness, we become an emblem of the cruelty of how whiteness works in our society. We imbibe that whiteness, and spit it out just as we have been spat at. We have taught ourselves to mask and become the white man that society wants us to be, and it still isn’t enough. Why is that?
Because whiteness is not a biological category, it is a social one. Whiteness can be given, or it can be taken away. Autistic people often find themselves in a world where they want to define themselves, but they are never given that freedom. We often don’t know who decides who we are, but we know it’s definitely not us. It’s a pretty kafkaesque experience.
When that whiteness is taken away, the results are dramatic. The autistic young man falls into a state of depression, which he fights all his might to get out of. This can lead young men to a state where they will believe everything in order to become accepted. The young man who was convicted of planning a bombing attack on a gay venue in Cumbria was radicalised online by homophobes who told him that ‘if he would bomb the gays, you will become straight’ (again, please help if you have the exact quote).
Descriptions of his depression and his living in “squalid conditions” are redolent of the bitterness I felt when I was his age. After school, dropped out of university – or in my case, drama school – many of us turn bitter. I’ve had huge impostor syndrome all throughout my life. It was even worse when I tried to pretend I was straight, neurotypical and did not have mental health issues.
Does this absolve these young men of their actions? Of course not. But neither does it absolve wider society. The third responsible party is myself, and others like me. We need to be the ones educating autistic young men. Because we’ve been there, in those states of hopelessness. We need to show them that there are ways out. That much of the pain they go through is a result of being in an invisible minority. That they deserve to find their tribe. It’s not going to be easy, or fun. Bitter people are difficult to work with. That’s the point of bitterness, it pushes people away. But we have to keep showing up. If autistic young men are shown how their oppression works, that they are not alone and not to blame, then they’ll come out of it.
I’m not referring to the rehabilitation of autistic young men who have already engaged in hate crimes, that requires bespoke support. Neither I can’t promise to cure anyone of depression or bitterness. I am just showing how elders in a community have a responsibility to educate the younger generation. In our community, that’s neither bound by blood or shared unspoken connection, we need that. And we need that now.
Thank you very much for reading all of this. I hope to actually put the ideas from this blog into practice and develop classes and training sessions for autistic young white men. We more than other communities need to understand the underlying structures of society. The current Prevent-duty in the UK is inadequate when it comes to autistic young people. If you or an organisation you are a part of are interested in working with me, my details are all over this website.
I’m currently working full-time at my teaching job, so bookmonth has taken a bit of a back seat, but Teeming, my novel, does talks about autistics finding themselves in radical groups and taken advantage of. Some of them get out of that situation, others don’t. I’ve got the rest of the day free to write, so I’ll be getting on with that.
See you next week!
Find out more about Geoff Bird here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-07-18-new-theory-revolutionises-understanding-autism His voice, though himself neurotypical, is a hugely valuable one.
For more on the “not all”-defence, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fu-MDEXwV4s This is a video from youtuber Three Arrows on the “not all”-defence being used to extricate blame from those who committed it, whether due to 1 or 100% ideological commitment. He is talking about the German army during WW2, but I think here we see the defence used the other way around, by people not from the social group concerned (for Three Arrows, in-group Germans). Here, the ‘not all autistics’ is equal to “They bring in drugs, they bring in crime, they’re rapists. And some of them, I assume, are good people.” The worst aspect of that quote is the last part, as the speaker believes it frees him up from accusations of racism – and his audience agreed.
For more on autism and radicalisation, Dr Clare Allely writes in The Conversation about this topic: https://theconversation.com/are-autistic-people-at-greater-risk-of-being-radicalised-7672
For a quick introduction to how autism is treated in the media, please watch Jessica Kellgren-Fozard’s video on autistic tropes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7q2A3ic0-w
¹ Despite stereotypes, those with antisocial personality disorder are not fundamentally incapable of acting in kindness either. They have to be supported well, rather than punished. Because they are not, many end up dead, on drugs and/or in prison. Or, even worse, in charge of multinational corporations that destroy democracy and intensify climate change.
² Regarding incels and race: they may not all be white, but whiteness, to incels, is the norm. They seek to adhere to already existing male standards and, due to the society we live in, those men are white. The problem here is the culture of whiteness, not the race of the incel. Race, again, is not a biological category, but a social one. Additionally, an East-Asian or Afro-Caribbean autistic incel in the UK will never be adopted by the far-right in Britain. Regarding incel culture in other countries, those are for others with that lived experience to dive in to.