The Urgent Need to Stop Criminalizing Autism

Behavioral experts say one of the key things teachers should know when dealing with a child on the autism spectrum is to not take that child’s seemingly rude or aggressive behavior personally.  Just as with any child, they say, various circumstances can trigger special needs children to express enjoyment, anger, sadness, as well as any other human emotion.

The Urgent Need to Stop Criminalizing Autism

As the parent of a special needs child, I’m acutely aware how important it is to have members of teaching and law enforcement communities trained to recognize the emotional ways in which autistic children might behave, and for them to understand what may be the causes of these behaviors. Far too often autistic behavior is misinterpreted as criminal activity, and as a result inappropriately punished.

Case in point: I recently heard from a parent named Raja whose child was needlessly victimized because a substitute teacher failed to recognize his son’s sensory issues.  Specifically, when Raja’s son sees a zipper he has the urge to tug on it.  Unfortunately, when Raja’s son was on his way to the classroom with a paraprofessional substitute teacher, he pulled on her back zipper.  Although the boy’s regular teacher disciplined him, the substitute instructor was so upset that she called her husband to pick her up from school.  When the husband arrived, he exacerbated the problem by demanding the school’s principal call police.  Although the police didn’t arrest the boy, they did inform Raja that they were keeping his son’s name in police records.  But if fault is to be found anywhere, it should be with the school, not with an innocent child.

Since Raja’s son’s sensory issues were well known by the school’s staff, they shouldn’t have hired a substitute teacher who was clearly lacking the training and experience necessary to interact with children on the autism spectrum. Secondly, the child’s regular homeroom teacher, who presumably was aware of the child’s behavioral triggers, should have informed the substitute teacher in advance about them.  Since this was not done at the outset, the boy’s regular teacher and the school’s principal should have met with the substitute teacher, after she lodged a complaint, and owned up to their mistakes.  It was incumbent upon them to address this situation from the perspective of protectors of the autistic child, not as administrators looking to shift the blame.  By taking direct responsibility, they likely could have prevented the substitute teacher from contacting police, and avoided the traumatization and victimization of an innocent child with special needs. Unfortunately, these types of mishaps and behavioral misdiagnoses are all too common, often resulting in consequences far more tragic. Law enforcement’s unfamiliarity with children and teens on the spectrum has led some who suffer from the condition to be imprisoned.

Not too long ago, a teen in Maine was arrested for sexual molestation after he pinched a young woman’s bottom in school. A day earlier, he had witnessed another boy do the same thing and the girl laughed. A zero-tolerance school policy and the nuance of pinching a friend on the bottom was lost on him. Unfortunately, it was also lost on law enforcement, which considered it forcible touching.

In Illinois, a 19-year-old was arrested by police in 2010 as a possible pedophile for kissing a baby in a stroller. It was a only a peck on the cheek, but the baby’s mother was terrified when an unknown tall young man kissed her baby. “I like babies,” the teen told authorities. The boy did not understand that it is OK to kiss babies he knew, but not the babies of strangers. Sadly, most police officers aren’t trained to recognize that the behavior they view as criminal may merely be a result of a child’s autistic button being pushed.  Complicating matters, many autistic individuals are unable to maintain eye contact, which they find intimidating. When questioned by police, that inability is often considered evasive or deceptive.

Once a person with autism is incarcerated, the prospect for proper care is virtually non-existent. The consequences of this reality are usually immediate and devastating. Even high-functioning autistic individuals have meltdowns without any triggers.  Guards and prison officials who don’t understand autism, often deal with behavior they consider troublesome or rebellious through solitary confinement.

It is bad enough to imprison people whose misdeed is due to autism, but to place a special needs person in solitary confinement does not result in appropriate punishment because the offender never understood the consequences of his or her actions. The confinement can destroy years of progress because the offender does not understand why he or she is being punished.

It’s beyond time to stop the cruel punishment and criminalization of people with autism.  What’s needed is comprehensive education and training of police officers, prosecutors, judges and correctional officials so they can distinguish between the calculated actions of criminals, and the unintended misdeeds of people on the autism spectrum.

This article was featured in Issue 57 – Conquering A New Year

Areva Martin

Areva Martin is one of the nation’s leading voices in the media.  An attorney, legal and social issues commentator, and talk show host, she is an audience favorite on a long list of talk and news shows on CNN, ABC and Fox. With regular appearances on Good Morning America and Dr.Phil, Areva is also a cohost on the Emmy Award-winning daytime syndicated talk show The Doctors. A Harvard Law School graduate, Areva is the founding partner of Martin & Martin, LLP. She represents clients in high-stakes civil and disability rights and employment litigation. She has been identified as a Southern California Super Lawyer for the last three years. Recognized as one of the nation’s leading autism and children’s rights advocates, she is the founder of Special Needs Network, Inc. and the author of an Amazon best-selling book, The Everyday Advocate: Standing Up for Your Child with Autism and Other Special Needs (Penguin 2010).