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New international study led by Holland Bloorview sheds light on troubling autism term found on hate speech forum

Study led by multidisciplinary team is part of a larger groundbreaking research project examining the link between autism and online hate

* Content warning: This story discusses hate speech and negative treatment of autistic people

An international team of autism researchers, health-care practitioners, anti-extremist experts and autistic advocates are bringing to light a term that has been widely used in online hate forums but has been largely unknown to the public: ‘weaponized autism.’

The multidisciplinary team is led by Dr. Melanie Penner, the principal investigator of a study that examined the term ‘weaponized autism’ used by individuals on Gab, a website associated with online hate, to better understand how autistic* people are discussed in these spaces, and how they may be affected by this term. (Note:  Many autistic self-advocates prefer to use identity-first language rather than people-first language in describing themselves. This story consciously chooses identity-first language to describe and report on this study.)

The study, Understanding the Use of the TermWeaponized Autism” in an Alt-Right Social Media Platform, has been published online in the Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders.

“Online hate is a growing concern, particularly when terms are used that are highly problematic to the autism community. To date, there has not been any systematic study of how the term “weaponized autism” is used in Gab and other websites associated with online hate. Prior to this study, our understanding of this term has only been informed by a few social posts and media mentions in the mainstream press,” says Dr. Penner, a clinician scientist at Holland Bloorview Rehabilitation Hospital’s Bloorview Research Institute. “Our goal of this study was to gain a better understanding of how this term is being used on this social platform and what it might tell us about how Gab users understand autism. In turn, this might help us to understand why a small group of autistic people might be engaging on Gab and other similar sites.”

This study is part of a larger three-year study funded by a New Frontiers in Research Fund grant that is examining the link between autistic people and online hate.

“It’s very important that our research team have co-investigators who can directly relate to the experiences of these autistic individuals who have become involved with these hate speech forums,” says Dr. Penner of the larger ongoing study. “We also are very deliberate in ensuring that the entire research process – from concept to completion – is co-created by researchers who have a diverse range of knowledge and lived experience in a manner that is respectful and thoughtful.”

How the study was developed

The significance of ‘weaponized autism’ surfaced, says Christie Welch, the study’s lead author, when the team was immersed in examining posts in online hate speech forums written by those who self-identified as autistic. The team noted how prolific this term was used on blogs and social media platforms that contained hate speech content.

“We found this term to be unsettling and felt concerned about its potential for harm to autistic people,” says Welch. “We discussed this as a team and decided to conduct a study on a subset of our data to understand the term better."

The team analyzed 711 posts on the social media platform Gab from November 2018 to March 2019, filtering for variations on ‘weaponized autism’ and then examined the posts using an approach called discourse analysis. This is a form of qualitative analysis that looks at how a topic is discussed and what this tells us about how the discussion informs the understanding of the topic in wider society.

What the study found

The research team found that the majority of Gab members using ‘weaponized autism’ did not self-identify as autistic, with only 19 posts written by users who claimed to be autistic. Many of the users frequently spoke about ‘weaponized autists’ and sometimes included them in a post that had a call to action. As for defining this term, Gab users are, according to the study’s authors, ‘applying a stereotype of autism, which is largely of their own making, but has roots in medical and media representations of autism. Building of this Gab autism archetype, “weaponized autism” is the harnessing of hyper-focus and talents of “autistic” people, to advance the interests of the alt-right.’

“This study shows that, within Gab, the term ‘weaponized autism’ is used in ways that are demeaning to autistic people as well as in ways that glorify what they assume to be features of autism,” says Welch. “If an autistic person is experiencing limited social acceptance more generally, the useful role and social status that comes with being a “weaponized autist” in this space could have relative appeal, despite the negative connotations that are also attached.”

“This study casts a light on how some online spaces are tailored by users trying to ‘weaponize’ autistic people into extremism. This remains an understudied area and more work is needed to further identify the risks and protective factors to prevent and respond to autistic individuals’ engagement in online hate-based materials,” says Christian Picciolini, a former extremist who has worked with hundreds of individuals to disengage them from hate groups. “This is especially crucial for autistic young people looking to establish meaningful identity, community and purpose.”

“In addition to teaching Internet safety, schools, families, local communities and society at large need to be more accepting of autistic people and find roles that are meaningful to them,” says John Elder Robison, an autistic adult who is the Neurodiversity Scholar at the U.S.-based College of William and Mary. “This way, we join a more diverse community and are less likely to be drawn towards hate speech forums like Gab.”

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