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Autism and the Criminal Justice System #proudtobeautistic #autismawareness

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

In today's blog I will be talking about the autistic community and their interactions with our criminal justice system. I will be looking at whether our criminal justice system is sufficiently geared up to understand and support those on the autistic spectrum.

There is no agreed consensus as to whether autistic adults are either more or less likely to break the law compared to their neuro typical peers. On one hand, the general liking for and adherence to rules might suggest that an autistic individual is less likely to break the law. However, there are also compelling arguments as to why autistic adults might be more likely to fall foul of the law. In terms of following the rules, yes many autistic adults like rules and will follow them, sometimes quite strictly. But individuals can only follow the rules if they actually know what they are - and not many people learn all the rules that their country calls laws.

For many neuro-typical people, their understanding of the law stems not from a study of the law itself, but from a sense of what society will consider 'right' and 'wrong'. There are some laws that most people are highly aware of, but the vast majority are almost inherently 'understood'. This may put an autistic individual at a huge disadvantage; he may not have the same inherent understanding of what is deemed 'right' (lawful) and 'wrong' (unlawful), as his understanding of right and wrong relate to ethical and moral issues rather than the law.

What is absolutely clear is that one can, of course, be autistic and undeniably criminal at the same time- by which I mean that if one is fully aware that one is breaking the law, there is intent to do so, and one understands the implications. However, it is equally clear to me, at least -that some autistic people who break the law do so in a manner more closely related to autism than to criminal intent. This in my view is where things get very tricky. Being autistic itself does not excuse anyone from law-breaking, but at the same time, it can give us a rather different perspective on why a law may have been broken. Some issues relating to the law which may cause an autistic person difficulty include:

Trust: If an adult trusts others he may simply believe what they say when they coerce him into breaking the law. People who don't have any significant understanding of autism may find this hard to comprehend. The difficulty in correlating a high level of intellectual and verbal ability with a profound lack of understanding of understanding may be a step too far for some. And yet it is clear that there are some adults who simply will believe people without question when they are told something. This can lead criminal activity on the part of the autistic person - as a direct result of coercion or manipulation by an unethical 'other'

Lack of intent: Some autistic individuals who engage in criminal activity do so with entirely different intentions - almost as if the actual law breaking has not even occurred to them. A prime example of this might be a passionate interest in computers which leads to the autistic person hacking sensitive data as a consequence. The autistic person may see an unlawful hacking of data as a non-criminal act as they are not using it for an unlawful gain, even though it is.

Lack of understanding of cause and effect: If one does not have a clear understanding of cause and effect it may be that a crime can be committed without realising it. Similarly, if one does not have the cognitive ability to 'see the bigger picture', one might act in a criminal manner without understanding that this is the case. In some cases of stalking, for example the autistic adult genuinely believed that he was behaving in a friendly (albeit intense) manner with no understanding of the impact of his actions on the other person.

Meltdowns: Many autistic adults who suffer from meltdowns will report that they are literally unable to control their actions at the time. If the behaviour includes hitting, for example, it may be that there is no difference at the time between hitting oneself, the wall or others- which has obvious problematic connotations.

How to deal with the authorities

Identify yourself: It is essential that you alert the police that you are autistic at the first possible opportunity. The police and other authorities cannot be expected to know unless you inform them. Once they do know, then they must make reasonable adjustments to ensure you're not discriminated against.

Alert Cards: You can get hold of alert cards that can assist in the above identification. In the alert card it's useful to have a synopsis of the key things you would want the police to know in the unfortunate instance that you are arrested. Having these written down is infinitely more useful than relying on yourself to remember them when you are in a stressful situation.

An appropriate adult or advocate:

However intellectually able you are, it is useful to have someone with you when you are being questioned. It may be that some interpretation of the questions is necessary to ensure that misunderstandings are avoided.

I have been Oliver Fenghour, please like, share and read this post with your connections.

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