I feel honored to interview Dr. Tony Attwood, one of the world’s foremost experts on Autism Spectrum Disorder. His first book, Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, is considered a must-read book. Dr. Attwood hailed from the U.K. and completed his education with an honors degree in psychology, a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and a Ph.D. His interest in autism was first sparked when he volunteered at a school during the summer of 1971. He met two autistic children and became fascinated with their interests, abilities, and challenges. Some thirty years later, he realized his own son was “on the spectrum.”
This encounter as a first-year psychology student in 1971 led to international recognition in the field of autism. In the last 50 years, he’s worked as a clinician in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia and started a diagnostic and treatment clinic for children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome in Brisbane in 1992. Today, Dr. Attwood continues to run clinics and spends much of his time traveling nationally and internationally to present workshops and seminars.
Intersection of Autism and Extremism
We talk with Dr. Attwood about the intersection between those on the autism spectrum and those recruited into cults and subject to mind control, particularly regarding the current political climate in the United States. Dr. Attwood discusses his concerns about America, stating, “America has far more to fear from its people than any other nation.” I believe he feels the intense disinformation systems allow for generating chaos, polarization, hatred, distrust, and violence.
Dr. Attwood talks with us about the traits of autistic people in that “they have difficulty reading the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of other people, but comfort themselves by the intellect, and find emotions within other people and themselves difficult to perceive and regulate.” This means that for some autistic people there is a feeling of rejection and denigration of compassion and empathy. Those are seen as personality faults, and if compassion is displayed, it means you’re weak. The idea that they are there to support others implies compassion and feeling for others, which is not something they can relate to.
Visualization as a Framework
We talk with Dr. Attwood about the Influence Continuum and BITE model, which people on the spectrum find incredibly valuable because it gives them a framework for reality testing. Dr. Attwood concurs and explains that the Continuum and BITE Model create a visualization, something autistic people can take a mental photograph of, allowing for better understanding as it’s something that can be seen rather than something incoherent or confusing in their mind. Additionally, Dr. Attwood tells us the logic of it, and how the model fits together is very revealing for an autistic person.
We talk about the ethical components within the continuum and how this relates to autistic people. Dr. Attwood tells us there is an assumption that autistic people don’t lie, which can be seen in preschoolers, who tend to be “self-appointed” truth-tellers. However autistic people can discover how to lie, but as Dr. Attwood explains, they tend to do it with blank poker faces. This allowed some autistic individuals to become multimillionaires playing poker because of the inability of other players to read their facial expressions.
Polarization and Lone-Actor Terrorists
We discuss how it seems that people worldwide are polarized by information warfare. This creates fertile soil for self-appointed prophets of right-wing groups claiming they receive direct messages from God about things such as the 2020 election lie and that Putin is doing God’s will. Blindly following people who use their positions of authority to lie repeatedly and with certainty undermines individual human rights as well as rule of law. Autistic people are affected by this kind of rhetoric and information control. We talk about how to get the message out about this in the most effective way.
Dr. Attwood acknowledges it’s difficult because “the world is moving in an increasingly intolerant and self-centered way.” People have been influenced towards narcissism and so people want what they want but are not prepared to suffer for it. They have their rights and expectations, and those should be met, no questions asked.
This can appeal to autistic people because they don’t have to look at different perspectives or outcomes. Compassion, for some autistic individuals, needs to be taught, learned, and practiced. He discusses the research examining autism and the intolerance of uncertainty. This allows extremist organizations to quickly recruit in the autism population because they offer certainty, which can be comforting as certainty and connection are highly valued. We talk about how autistic people don’t necessarily fit the FBI profile of a terrorist, but they might be more vulnerable to becoming a lone-actor terrorist if they do not have family and others to help explain undue influence and mind control. Dr. Attwood explains, “The view of right is on my side is very appealing to someone who doesn’t want to question what’s happening. It’s blind obedience.” This happened in Nazi Germany and continues to be a problem today.
Old Tactics, New Uses
Dr. Attwood and I talk about mind control and undue influence tactics we see today are not new. They are as old as time and can be seen in the attempt of the Nazis to infiltrate the United States in the 1930s to keep the United States out of World War II and to prevent the US from coming to the aid of the Jewish people. Additionally, in 1932 an espionage agent did a dissertation on mind control at the University of Munich, which talked about sidestepping reason and appealing to people emotionally. He recruited white supremacy militia for the Christian Front to stage a violent coup in the United States in 1940. Dr. Attwood discusses what this means in current times. Will they seize the opportunities presented? They are moving toward confrontation within the country, which means either civil or international war.
We discuss how the current climate within the United States is easy to exploit, an example being the lax gun safety laws. It is easy for other countries to point to the United States and say they allow people to shoot their children with assault rifles, but we keep you safe.
Elon Musk and Extremism
Dr. Attwood talks about how people like Elon Musk are appealing to right-wing extremists who are very black-and-white in their thinking. There are no gray areas, only absolutes. This allows for a script of what to do and say, which becomes automatic. Additionally, there is a connection with people who become very important to the autistic person and feed off one another. With Musk, he is not pro-democracy. Musk believes in social Darwinism and “longtermism.” Neither will lead to positive outcomes for our planetary survival.
We discuss the positive traits of neurodiversity being highlighted in recent times. Musk is touted as a genius, but what are his actual values? Narcissistic self-righteousness seems to be in operation. Autistic people have a hard time with the idea of compromise. They tend more toward the “I am right and will win at all costs” thinking. This creates problems around the need to change decisions, take in new information and make different choices based on it. Doing so would imply being wrong. Flexibility is not easily within the wheelhouse of an autistic person, meaning that changing beliefs based on what they subsequently experience is not easily done.
Dr. Attwood expresses concerns about Musk promoting autism, which is a good thing. Still, at the same time, he wonders if there is also the encouragement of autistic people to become part of a group that is intolerant of alternative ways of thinking. Attwood talks about how autistic people within a family system can sometimes become arrogant and autocratic, seeing other family members as personal servants to do their bidding. The parents can object, but their opinions have little value for the autistic person. This kind of thinking translates to the world at large, and for people in positions of power and money like Musk, this can be disastrous.
Positive Peer Pressure
What can be done to move in a more positive direction? Dr. Attwood suggests that parents check where their children’s activities are on the Internet. Are they visiting extremist sites? Doing online gaming with complete strangers who wish to befriend and recruit them into an extremist cult? Parents should solicit guidance from experts on managing these issues. We also need law enforcement to understand that autistic people are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups, which means monitoring people who are showing signs of slipping into those belief systems. Dr. Attwood emphasizes that we don’t want people reported for unacceptable beliefs, which creates many ethical, legal, and moral issues. Still, we do need to be mindful of the issues and observant of what is happening, particularly with vulnerable populations.
We need groups for students who might not otherwise be included. They need to have those social connections, that reality testing and grounding that peer groups provide, a positive peer pressure to keep them away from the dangers of extremism. One way this can be done is within the educational system. Amplifying the messaging of ethical people on the spectrum especially trained and credentialed mental health professionals who understand how to teach and empower others, is key to making positive change.
Undue Influence: Cults and Predators with Steven Hassan– webinar for AANE.org
NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman
The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed by Temple Grandin
Asperger’s Syndrome and Sexuality: From Adolescence through Adulthood by Isabelle Henault
Guardian article: ‘They tried to wipe it out’: the problem with talking about Asperger’s