What better time to initiate a conversation about encounters with the criminal justice system than during autism awareness month? As parents, we are all-too-familiar with the child who is bullied or victimized.
But parents are surprised to learn that their child is at an increased risk of being detained in the back of a police wagon or seated in a courtroom at the defendant’s table.
So, why are we seeing this rise in criminal offenders with autism? For one, what may appear to be an increase may simply be attributed to an improvement in identifying them. Secondly, police officers do not recognize the tell-tale signs of autism and innocently mistake characteristic behaviors as suspicious activity. And lastly, these so-called offenders do not understand that what they are doing may be wrong, let alone criminal.
Mom: “How Did This Happen?”
As an attorney defending the rights of those with autism, “How did this happen?” is the question I hear most often in my initial meeting with parents facing their child’s arrest. These parents never envisioned the possibility that their child could be arrested, prosecuted and even imprisoned. And, the only true common denominator among these offenders is that they have autism.
So, how did this happen? What led up to this moment and what does every parent need to know in hopes of preventing such a catastrophic event?
The Early Years
We know, as parents, the exasperation of dealing with a toddler who is in the throes of a tantrum or a meltdown. We may see hands flailing or toys thrown. As our child with special needs gets older, we still may excuse what we’ve come to know as meltdowns because our child just can’t help it. But the picture changes when those all-too-demanding behaviors continue into teen and adult years. Then, meltdowns can be deemed dangerous or threatening. That’s why we must be proactive about offering our children skills and tools to avert triggers and manage meltdowns.
In my years of representing criminal defendants with autism, I have found the most common offenses to be harassment, stalking, sexual assault and child pornography. Oftentimes such behavior first raises its ugly head when children are tweens or teens. The reasons these crimes top the list include overactive curiosity, lack of empathy, “theory of mind,” and dysregulation, all typical of children with autism.
Four Easy Tips
Below are easy tips to implement early on:
1. Monitor your child’s computer access by easy tips to implement early on keeping the computer in a common area of your home
2. Encourage your child to ask questions by providing a safe, non-judgmental home environment
3. Find ways to stay connected with your child regularly
4. Limit computer time, other than school work, to one or two hours a day
A Legal Perspective
To better understand how your child could land in a courtroom or a prison, you need to know how the legal process approaches autism.
With the increased encounters between law enforcement and those with autism, police officers, attorneys, prosecutors and judges are confronting unchartered territory. The majority do not understand autism and the criminal justice system has not yet established laws addressing autism. Some state courts may have programs designed to divert and treat offenders with mental illness. But, because autism is a neurological and developmental disorder, it does not qualify as a mental illness. That’s why defending those with autism is a novel challenge that requires an intimate understanding and insight into how those with autism act and think.
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It’s Not What It Looks Like
One of my most rewarding cases involved a 21-year-old male arrested for stalking. It all started when he was sitting behind the wheel of his parked car for hours outside the victim’s home, binoculars in hand and food on the passenger’s seat. A concerned neighbor called the police. The police arrived, ordered the driver out of the car and proceeded to arrest him. When I asked my client if he understood why what he did was wrong or illegal, appearing obviously puzzled, he answered, “No.”
As the trial date got closer, I approached the prosecutor to plead the uniqueness of my case. Afterall, my client’s future hung in the balance. I told her, “It isn’t what it looks like.” In disbelief, she responded “Are you kidding? There were binoculars and food in the car.” I passionately persisted in my attempt to make her understand. She resisted at first, but I was able to bring her around to my way of thinking. The case never saw the inside of a courtroom and my client avoided a criminal conviction. Not all criminal defendants with autism are so fortunate.
“My Child Didn’t Do it on Purpose”
Most of the defendants with autism for whom I advocate did not intend to commit a crime nor harm another person. Rather, the criminal acts are a reaction to a given situation. They acted in the only way they know to protect themselves from a perceived threat.
To better understand this, let’s look at the following scenarios where your child might be charged with assaulting another person.
1. You receive an alarming call from your son’s school. The police are there to arrest your son for striking a teacher. You later discover that your son was reacting to something the teacher said.
2. You and your son are at the supermarket. You proceed down an aisle with your son close behind. Suddenly, you hear a scream. You quickly turn to see a stranger face down on the floor and your son nearby. A store employee calls the police who arrest your son for assault. Later, you learn your child believed the stranger was staring at him.
3. Your 20-year-old son is attracted to a girl he sees walking down the street. Being naïve and possessing the emotional maturity of a much younger child, he approaches her and inappropriately touches her buttocks.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The most effective weapon available to combat future arrests and imprisonment of those with autism is education and understanding. We must enlighten those with legal decision-making power.
Below are measures recommended to reduce arrests:
1. Train police officers, prosecutors, lawyers and judges to recognize signs of autism
2. Train police officers how to interact with those on the autism spectrum
3. Educate lawyers, prosecutors and judges about behaviors and mental deficits characteristic of those with autism
4. Train school employees how to interact with students on the spectrum
5. Train parents to recognize red flags
6. Teach your children how to regulate their emotions
7. Instruct your children on appropriate behaviors and what is deemed a crime
The recommendations offered here do not guarantee that you will never get that dreaded call that your child has threatened someone or been arrested. However, they will hopefully help you to answer the question, “How did this happen?” Providing your children with necessary skills and raising the awareness of how children with autism behave and perceive are a good place to start.
This article was featured in Issue 87 – Building ASD Awareness and Communication