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Autism and Prevent – When will the government finally realise that counterterrorism and the criminal justice system are completely inappropriate for vulnerable people?

15 JULY 2021

Now the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation is adding his voice to calls for scrutiny of how Prevent is applied.


Of all the things I could have done without on the anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, reading an article on the “’Staggeringly high’ number of people with autism on UK Prevent scheme” was one of them — this is by no means a criticism of the newspaper, but a remark on how this is yet another news report in quick succession about fundamental questions around the failing Prevent strategy. 


Autistic individuals are already vulnerable enough as it is — the condition is often both misunderstood and stigmatised — without being added to the list of ‘conditions’ or ‘characteristics’ that might make someone prone to becoming a terrorist. The Reviewer, Jonathan Hall QC, suggests a term of “autism plus” to describe the situation of many radicalised people with autism, who face “some additional factor” besides autism. In reality, rather than “autism plus”, this is “plus autism”. In other words, the majority of cases involving autism include the same risk factors that non-autistic individuals face — autism is just another personal characteristic instead of the specific main explanatory factor for radicalisation.  


This cannot be our children’s future. 


This cannot be the future of autistic people. 


Just as with mental health, autism seems to be the latest personal struggle or ‘vulnerability to radicalisation’ that has been deemed worthy of being put under the umbrella of ‘safeguarding through Prevent’, instead of — for example — receiving more funding to develop adequate resources for those who need it. 


And, just as with many aspects of the Prevent strategy, this represents another part of the government’s quasi-fetishisation of national security and the criminal justice system — which has, ironically, been persistently deprived of funding by successive Conservative governments — as a catch-all ‘solution’ for any kind of social ‘issue’ that may otherwise require funding to be diverted from other sources or actual engagement with community groups. 


Possibly the worst way to ‘help’ anyone who is vulnerable or who sees the world differently is to tell them — with no logical explanation — that they have the hallmarks of a potential terrorist. 


Jonathan Hall QC is featured in the same article as stating that he believes the ‘link’ between (counter)terrorism and autism is not discussed because of the stigma. Whilst this does hold some truth, we must also shine a light on this incredibly concerning problem, which will only further worsen the stigma. 


The Home Office and police have some serious questions to answer on this, including:

  • The extent to which autism groups were consulted on this;
  • The process that led to this even becoming a part of counterterrorism policy;
  • What exactly the criteria are for referring an autistic person to Prevent;
  • The extent to which Prevent has become embedded as a duty for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) services — which would mean that practitioners are first and foremost beholden to counterextremism ‘obligations’;
  • How much support is provided to those referred on how to cope with a referral.

This is a hugely damaging, stigmatising overreach of the government’s counterterrorism policy. Many minority communities only have further mistrust and reluctance to access public services as a result of Prevent becoming embedded as a ‘safeguarding’ duty and open to individual discretion. Unfortunately, this may well be the consequence for autistic individuals — and even more of a ‘risk’ for people with autism who come from minoritised backgrounds, with the impact of intersectionality. 


Autism is only the latest unbelievably dangerous link to extremism to have been made by the government. I shudder to think what will be next if there is not fundamental change in counterterrorism.

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