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Computer misuse

Threats of the net

Illegal hacking, sexual predators,
extremist recruiters, trolls, illegal
drugs and even weapons the
dark side of the internet harbours
many dangers. Dr Mitzi Waltz
discusses the risks and what
parents can do to minimize them
Remember Gary McKinnon, who
was diagnosed with Asperger
syndrome while fighting against
extradition to the US over breaking
into computer databases belonging
to NASA, the US military and the
Pentagon? It has taken high-profile
cases such as this for parents of
young people with autism to wake
up to the possibility that computer
use can involve illegal hacking,
with potentially dire consequences.
Most parents are also aware of
the presence of sexual predators
and extremist recruiters on the
internet. But while the web offers
many positive opportunities for
communication, enjoyment and
work for people with autism, these
are not the only dark corners we
must educate and protect young
people against.

Beware the troll

Trolling the deliberate practice
of posting provocative and even
threatening statements targeting
others is as old as the Usenet
discussion lists that preceded the
web as we know it today. Some
people see it as a sort of sport, like
bear baiting but with human victims.
Trolling is rife on wide-open
social media venues such as
Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook.
It can also be seen in spaces such
as the comment sections run by
YouTube, mainstream newspapers
and online publications, Minecraft
servers, and other game sites.
People with autism can be
victimised by trolls, suffering
severe blows to their self-esteem.
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I am aware of some trolls who

have gone to the extreme of
maliciously goading young people
with autism to commit suicide,
even offering to provide them with
the place and means to take their
own lives.
[Some] internet trolls exhibit
psychopathic traits, engaging with
and attacking people and not
displaying any remorse or guilt for
their actions, says Dr Michelle
Drouin, an Indiana Universitybased developmental psychologist
whose focus is on social media
and online communications. They
may attack or prey on others whom
they perceive to be vulnerable,
without any guilt about whom they
may be victimizing.
However, some pernicious
trolls are themselves on the autism
spectrum: their lack of
understanding about the emotional
responses of others can lead them
to make obnoxious or threatening
posts. When arguments begin
online, its easy for words to spiral
out of control. To quote one
individual with Asperger syndrome
who has written publicly about
struggling with impulsive trolling:
I make comebacks that are
awkward, childish ad immature,
he writes, then I lose the troll fight/
argument and do things like
posting childish all-caps death
threats (Anonymous, 2015).
Most trolls are unaware that
their behaviour can be criminal.
In the UK, trolling can attract a
prison sentence of up to two years.
Government figures from 2015

Dr Michelle Drouin:
internet trolls may
attack or prey on
others whom they
perceive to be
vulnerable, without
any guilt

show that five people per day are

being convicted under Section 127
of the Communications Act 2003 or
the Malicious Communications Act
(The Telegraph, 2015).
The creation of fake online
profiles in order to harass others
can be enough to invite
prosecution. Several people with
autism have been convicted in this
way over the past few years (BBC,
2012). One example was the
conviction in 2011 of Sean Duffy, a
young man with autism from
Reading in Berkshire, after he

posted offensive images on

memorial sites and taunted the
family members of young people
who had died.

Shopping for trouble

Other teenagers and young adults
on the spectrum have fallen prey to
the lures of online shopping sites.
Sometimes they steal from or
defraud their parents or employers
to fund a shopping addiction. This
can be driven by a collecting
obsession. As one 23-year-old
confessed in an online forum:

From the
moment they
put a connected
device in their
childrens hands,
parents and educators
of all children need to
monitor their childrens
internet use

Im addicted because honestly,

Im trying to fill a hole in my heart
with shopping, which is sad.
(Anonymous, 2010).
Overspending on legitimate
products is bad enough, but there
is also an online market in illegal
drugs and weapons. The public
arrest and prosecution of Gary
Davis, the alleged administrator of
the Silk Road black market
website, on charges of conspiracy
to sell narcotics and money
laundering, has done little to close
the doors of these secret bazaars.

Engaged: but
young people
also need to
be educated to
the internets

Au t i s m | e y e I s s u e 2 3 2 0 1 6 9

Computer misuse

Dr Mitzi Waltz is a
senior researcher
with Rotterdam
University of Applied
Sciences, and an
autism consultant.
She is also the parent
of a young man on
the autism spectrum

Aspirational futures through

inspirational education & care

What parents can do

From the moment they put a
connected device in their
childrens hands, parents and
educators of all children need to
monitor their childrens internet
use, Dr Drouin says.
Although there are certain
places where children are more
likely to encounter trolls (such as
websites where people may post
anonymously), children could also
encounter trolls on commonly used
social networking sites like
Instagram and Facebook. Parents
should be followers or friends with
their children on these sites and
check in regularly to see that what
theyre posting is appropriate and
that others are engaging with them

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Davis, from County Wicklow, has

tried to fight extradition to the US,
citing his Asperger syndrome
diagnosis (Rogan, 2015).
Mohammed Ali of Bolton is
another person with an ASD who
has stumbled onto the Dark Web,
the part of the internet where items
including deadly poisons, illegal
weapons and child pornography
are for sale. Caught in an FBI sting,
the computer programmer was
charged with possessing a
chemical weapon after ordering the
poison ricin (Pennink, 2015).
It is important for young people
to know that an ASD diagnosis will
not act as a get-out-of-jail-free card
in such prosecutions. At best, it
could help a defendant trade
prison for a secure hospital or
mandatory community treatment.
Ironically, these types of sentences
can last longer than prison terms
for the same crimes, and may
include forced medication.

Im addicted
honestly, Im trying
to fill a hole in my
heart with shopping,
which is sad
in a socially appropriate way.
The same caution applies to
concerns about compulsive
shopping and the Dark Web.
Parents should ensure that they do
not share bank account or credit
card details with their children, do
not leave their cards in reach, and
check their statements regularly for
any mystery transactions. Software

is available that can prevent access

to some sites, but determined
users can often get around this:
there is no substitute for talking
and spending time together while
the person you care for is online.
So, stay involved in your childs
or adults online life, asking
questions and being alert to signs
of agitation, worry or secrecy.
Support your child or adult to be
active in non-computer-based
activities as well. Most important,
talk about what is legal and
acceptable. Social stories may help
to explain this to individuals who
are more impacted by autism, while
those who are more computersavvy will need to engage regularly
with people who demonstrate safe,
responsible online behaviour.

l Anonymous (2010): Popular hobbies and addictions.
Online at: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=139361&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=0
l Anonymous (2015): Autism + online trolling = one of the worst things that can happen in the Internet, Reddit.
Online at: https://m.reddit.com/r/aspergers/comments/3d6euu/autism_online_trolling_one_of_the_worst_things/
l BBC (2012): Facebook troll Sean Duffy sentenced for offensive Sophie Taylor image, BBC News Scotland.
Online at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-17385042
l Pennink, Emily (2015): Dad accused of trying to buy Breaking Bad-style ricin displayed traits of Asperger Syndrome, jury told,
The Mirror, 25 July. Online at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/dad-accused-trying-buy-breaking-6125739
l Rogan. Aaron (2015): Silk Road accused exaggerated Aspergers, The Times, 2 December.
Online at: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/irishnews/article4629952.ece
l Telegraph staff (2015): Five Internet trolls a day convicted in UK as figures show ten-fold increase, The Telegraph, 24 May.
Online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11627180/Five-internet-trolls-a-day-convicted-in-UK-as-figures-show-tenfold-increase.html

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