Are Special Needs Youth More Vulnerable to Radicalization?

The most vulnerable population for radicalization are special needs youth, including those that have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Aspergers, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or who suffer from learning disabilities. 

In almost every conversation on children and youth, this demographic is often the most neglected or overlooked. To begin to better understand special needs youth, we have to dial back the clock to when the children are typically first diagnosed — usually around the age of one- to three-years old. 

“…all children under the age of three receive free Regional Center services”

In the United States, following a diagnosis that’s conducted for free by the local county Regional Center, all children under the age of three receive free Regional Center services. These services typically include applied behavior analysis (ABA), occupational therapy and sometimes speech therapy. 

Families with special needs children have unique circumstances that benefit from additional accommodations, care and patience. Children with a special needs diagnosis can receive up to approximately 30 hours a week of services that include parent participation. 

Meanwhile some special needs families either have not benefited from early diagnosis and intervention or the needs of the child and family are overlooked (this can typically be due to cultural influences where a “disability” is seen as a source of shame and thus ignored). 

“…a family with a special needs child faces a significant amount of stress.”

In even the best case scenario — where a family receives support services and where parents are trained to recognize the special needs of their children — a family with a special needs child faces a significant amount of stress. Studies show that the average special needs parent invests an average of four hours more per day toward child care needs, while other studies show that parents of special needs children can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition typically associated with veterans returning from war zones.

Special needs families (parents and children included) face high amounts of stress even when they have been trained to cope with and support their special needs child and even hen they receive ongoing assistance. For these reasons alone, youth face additional susceptibility to radicalization because of the push and pull factors at home that can be beyond a parent’s awareness or ability to control.

“This makes even the most supported youth vulnerable to radicalization…”

Special needs children themselves not only can suffer from this pressure at home, but often from social rejection or intimidation by their neurotypical peers. As much as special needs youth need a enriching peer environment, there are challenges that come with kindling and cultivating healthy peer relationships, maintaining them and recognizing when those relationships become manipulative and toxic. This makes even the most supported youth vulnerable to radicalization in two ways: 

  1. Not being aware that peer relationships are abusive or exploitive.
    A person with Autism will not be able to necessarily read body language, tone or facial expressions that communicate abusive intent. A person with Aspergers (a diagnosis now nested under ASD) has difficulty reconciling behavior with language. For example, if someone says they’re a child’s friend but beats the child daily, a youth with Asperger’s will continue believing that individual is a friend because it’s been repeatedly said so despite the behavior to the contrary.
  2. Severe alienation and/or pressure from home can lead youth to seek “safe spaces” among peers who do not judge or isolate special needs youth.
    Because special needs youth cannot discriminate (as described above), they are often taken advantage of in these peer communities. 

The crisis for special needs youth and their vulnerability to exploitation and radicalization is a global issue. Radicalization in this sphere impacts special needs youth without discrimination. A child from the Middle East or North Africa with no access to resources or support can be pushed into public spaces with a suicide vest, unaware of their actions and consequences. A child in the U.S. is no safer from falling prey to radicalizing influences as they manifest domestically.