Individuals on the autism spectrum are particularly vulnerable to committing online offenses, in many instances unwittingly. They are also victimized by online predators, financial scams, and extremist groups. Consequently, they are increasingly interacting with the criminal justice system as either offenders or victims. It is estimated that 25% of the autistic population aged 16 and older have had contact with the criminal justice system as either a victim or offender (Miller et al., 2021). Some autistic characteristics create a greater risk for online offending or of being victimized online. These include social isolation, trauma, lack of social awareness, difficulties discerning the intentions of others, insufficient sexuality education and support, immersion in fantasy, rigid thinking, and the need for community. Online safety awareness and education regarding legal consequences are critically needed to reverse these current trends.
Autism and Online Behavior
The online world is a unique space where conventional boundaries are often blurred and misunderstood. Online disinhibition is the tendency for people to feel less restrained in cyberspace and behave in a way they would never do in the real world (Suler, 2004). The ability to hide one’s identity online causes a dissociation from online behavior. In essence, the online self is compartmentalized. This psychological effect is often observed in autistic individuals due to the large amounts of time they spend online. The propensity to engage in certain negative behaviors online without inhibition has produced a toxic and sometimes dangerous online environment for many. This can result in harassing behaviors and sometimes illegal activities, such as making threats. Autistic individuals are operating in this environment without the social understanding and societal guardrails necessary for their personal safety. The uninhibited world of the internet and social media can create a perfect storm for those on the autism spectrum, which may result in either criminal offenses or victimization.
Many autistic individuals go online to seek the social acceptance that they cannot find in their daily in-person interactions. The online world eliminates the need for real-time interactions and allows the person to respond in their own timeframe. It also does not demand the simultaneous processing of verbal and nonverbal social cues, which is so difficult for those on the spectrum. They can communicate in chat rooms and on social media easily without exposing their social awkwardness. As a result, the online world becomes almost their exclusive source of social contact. The online world is a fast, fluid situation; specific and unpredictable. It requires the ability to think flexibly and relies heavily on social pragmatic language. These are the very issues that individuals with autism find extremely challenging. We see that online situations are often misinterpreted by neurotypicals. Accordingly, this type of social contact is even more taxing for someone on the autism spectrum. They are extremely vulnerable to bullying, cyber scams, inappropriate sexual behavior, and even radicalization and cult recruitment.
Online Sexual Behavior
Autistic persons are sexually curious and may spend many hours viewing pornography to understand their own sexuality (Hénault, 2014). Many are drawn to the computer to explore their sexuality and have no real sexual experience or knowledge. They may have limited peer relationships. A significant number have been exposed to pornography at a young age (10 years +). This exposure often portrays young children in a highly sexual way and the distinction between age appropriate and underage females and males is intentionally blurred (Mahoney, 2009). This may result in a preference for images of minors even as they become older. If the emotional maturity of the person is delayed by several years, their viewing may focus on that age group, which feels less threatening. Much of what they may be viewing online is fetishistic and outside the realm of conventional sexual behavior. Pornographic sites often prompt users to click on sites that are increasingly more violent, disturbing or that involve children. This may develop into online sexual addictions. Several have reported an addictive sequence of compulsive viewing, which led to a need for novel stimuli in increasing amounts to achieve sexual satisfaction. Autistic individuals may also seek out highly novel sexual content out of curiosity. It is therefore critical to provide sexuality education to those on the autism spectrum and discuss the highly addictive qualities of pornography.
Sexual Victimization Online
Lack of sexual experience and social naiveté combined with intense loneliness creates a perfect storm for those on the spectrum becoming victimized by sexual predators. Autistic young people are often easily deceived and manipulated by online pedophiles seeking pictures and videos. Clinicians have heard many of their clients discuss sending explicit photos online or allowing themselves to be videoed in sexual scenarios. Clearly, this is not just happening to those on the spectrum and is an issue that must be addressed with all adolescents and young adults. Sexting and sexual exploration online are common among teenagers (Madigan et al., 2018). The primary concern is the increased risk of those with autism to be the object of online sexual solicitation (Wells & Mitchell, 2013). Those with autism are at risk due to their inability to detect deception or discern the motivations of these predatory individuals. They may not have the social maturity or knowledge of the boundaries of appropriate sexual behavior and may be operating with “social scripts” they learn in chatrooms or texting. Many do not fully understand the social implications of their imitative language.
Collecting/Completing the Collection
For many ASD individuals, their activities revolve around a specific interest: finding collecting, and “completing the collection.” This completion is necessary and results in the amassing of large amounts of images or other materials at times through file-sharing software. File sharing can result in large dumps of computer files to a receiver’s computer while it is left on overnight. Many illegal items may be embedded in these files and the receiver is unaware of the content. Besides being avid collectors, autistic individuals may also be adept at obtaining copyrighted materials and circumventing security controls.
Individuals on the autism spectrum are particularly at risk for joining cult-like organizations and radicalized groups. As these groups have proliferated online, the instances of radicalization are increasing. They are seeking a community where they will be accepted and are drawn to rigid ideologies that match their “black and white” thinking style. Many have decreased social contact and can be easily drawn into groups that encourage isolation from others. Those on the autism spectrum like the structure and routine that is associated with group affiliation. Some autistic individuals are highly impressionable and do not understand the motives or agendas of the group (Allely, 2022). They are seeking group acceptance and may be easily manipulated by group members. Due to their social naiveté, individuals on the spectrum are used as pawns by those who deceive them into thinking they are trusted allies. It is common to see ASD individuals “set up” by those more socially savvy to carry out risky or illegal actions on their behalf.
Parents for Peace, a public health organization that empowers families, friends, and communities to prevent radicalization, has reported an increase in cases involving individuals on the autism spectrum. They have observed that autistic individuals exhibit great fluidity in the ideologies they subscribe to from right-wing to left-wing extremism. Autistic individuals seem mainly drawn to the structure, rigid thinking style and the sense of belonging that these groups provide. Trauma also appears to be a significant factor in online radicalization. Autistic individuals have frequently experienced bullying and feel they have no locus of control. Through their affiliation with a radical group, they hope to achieve a sense of control of their environment. Unfortunately, they can be further victimized by members of these groups. Therefore, education, understanding, and involvement of family members are essential to preventing online radicalization.
Dr. Mary Cohen is the Director of ASD Forensics and can be contacted at www.asdforensics.com.
Allely, C. S. (2022). Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Criminal Justice System: A Guide to Understanding Suspects, Defendants and Offenders with Autism. Routledge. DOI:10.4324/9781003212195
Hénault, I. (2014). Sex Education and Intervention. In Attwood, Hénault, & Dubin The Autism Spectrum, Sexuality and the Law: What Every Parent and Professional Should Know (pp. 189-210). Jessica Kingsley.
Madigan, S., Ly, A., Rash, C.L., Ouystel, J.V. & Temple, J.R. (2018). Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among Youth: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics, 172 (4). DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314
Mahoney, M. (2021). Defending Men with Autism Accused of Online Sexual Offenses. In Volkmar, Loftin, Westphal and Woodbury-Smith (Eds.) Handbook of Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Law (pp. 269-306) Springer.
Miller, K.M.K., Becker, A., Cooper, D. & Shea, L. (2021). Justice System Interactions Among Autistic Individuals: A Multiple Methods Analysis. Crime & Delinquency 1-25. DOI: 10.1177/0011054733
Mitchell, K. J., Jones, L. & Wells, M. (2013) Testing the Index of Problematic Online Experiences with a National Sample of Adolescents. Journal of Adolescence 36 1153-1163.
Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 7 (3). doi.org/10.1089/1094931041291295