Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 2

Are people with autism more likely to come in to contact with the criminal justice system?  And if so, why?

It goes without saying that not all autistic people are potential criminals, but there are certain factors that might make it more likely for somebody with autism to come in to contact with the criminal justice system than their neuro-typical counterparts.  It may be to do with the person’s behaviour, or with the way society reacts to that behaviour; it might a particular set of circumstances, or way of dealing with people, or situations.   It is important to remember that these won’t apply to everyone, and not everyone with autism will come in to contact with the police during their lifetime.  Below are some points that may be relevant when it comes to autistic individuals, and the likelihood of increased risk of coming in to contact with the criminal justice system.

Meltdowns/outbursts – not everybody with autism will have outbursts or meltdowns, but those who do will know how difficult they can be to deal with.  They can lead people to do, and say many things which they later regret.  Somebody may begin to cry and hit themselves, or they may turn their attention on to somebody else.  It is unfortunate, but perfectly good-natured and friendly people can lash out at others around them when they are having a meltdown.  Anyone who knows anything about autism will understand that this isn’t done out of violence or aggression.  It is a reaction that isn’t premeditated, and more than likely isn’t done with any intent to harm.  But unfortunately this doesn’t always mean that there aren’t consequences.  Somebody may be out in public and lash out or shout at a complete stranger.  They may be with their family or partner and do something similar to them, only to have their actions misunderstood by those around them.  Even if the person is at home, well-meaning, but misguided neighbours may call the police if they hear a lot of shouting.  Contact with the police might not always result if the person is younger, but the older somebody becomes the more likely it is that any kind of meltdown or outburst in public may result in interference from by-passers, and possible contact with the police.

Social Skills – people with autism may also get in to trouble for not following the unwritten rules of society.  A person might refuse to give up their seat on a crowded bus, or attempt to get in to a taxi ahead of somebody who might need it more, because they were there first.  Now because these things are just conventions of society the autistic person isn’t actually doing anything wrong, let alone illegal.  But the problem can come when others take it upon themselves to uphold these unwritten rules.  A bus driver may insist on a person giving up their seat, or some member of the public may challenge the autistic person on a similar point, leading to conflict.

Sense of Justice – the autistic person’s strong sense of justice, and refusal to be told they are doing something wrong when they know they are not, could easily lead to an argument.  Perhaps by not giving up their seat to somebody who is elderly or pregnant the person with autism may provoke as much of a reaction as if they did do something illegal – because even though these laws are unwritten, people treat them very seriously, and look down upon anyone who doesn’t follow them.  Situations such as this can lead to conflict with the autistic person refusing to back-down because they know they are right.

An example of this – when it comes to actual laws – is an autistic individual who a few years ago went to prison for refusing to pay child-support officially through the Child Support Agency.  Many parents get in to trouble for this, but this individual had actually paid more money than the required amount to his children and ex-wife – but he had paid in cash, or bought things for his sons instead of paying through the child support system.  He said the law stated he was supposed to pay a certain amount of money each month, and that he had exceeded this amount every time.  Even when it became apparent that legally he was wrong, and would probably go to prison, he refused to back down as he believed he was morally right.  He had no problem in paying the money to his family, but simply said that as he had already paid in one form, he wasn’t going to pay again in another.

Naïve and easily influenced – people with autism can be more naïve than others for a number of reasons.  They may take things literally, and not be able to understand when people are lying to them.  Therefore if somebody says they need to do something, or that a certain activity is alright they may believe them, and not be able to sense the lie.  There may also be a desire to fit-in to society that, coupled with the previous two points, can leave somebody with autism very open to manipulation.  If they believe that a person or group of people are their friends, and that they need to do particular activities to fit-in, and to be accepted fully, they may well be influenced in to doing these things even if they do know better.  This isn’t to say that everybody with autism is open to manipulation and control, but a large number of autistic people are more vulnerable in these areas.  This is more likely to lead them in to committing a crime through sheer ignorance, or through a naïve belief that this is alright.  There is also the fact that they may be naïve about the consequences of their actions.  There have even been cases that have gone on in court for years based around crimes committed by autistic people, who believe that because no actual harm was done they would not get in to trouble.  This article isn’t about commenting on what is right or wrong, but it is worth putting a warning – most of the time the police and Government will focus more on whether a crime has been committed, rather than what the intentions or consequences of it were.

Accidentally breaking the law – this could come under naivety, but there are examples of cases where somebody could break the law quite unintentionally.  There have been instances where somebody with autism didn’t understand the concept of having to pay for items in shops.  So simply said `I`m taking these` and left.  They didn’t have any intention of stealing, they just couldn’t understand the concept that they needed to exchange money for their items.  Most people with autism will not have this problem – and it does completely depend on whether the people around them are understanding or not – but breaking the law, unintentionally or not, can bring a person with autism in to contact with the police, and the criminal justice system as a whole.

Looking at the points above, autistic people are not more likely to come in to contact with the police because they are violent, or especially criminal in their behaviour.  It is really due to the fact that some traits of autism can be problematic in a society of mostly neuro-typical people.  But it is important to remember what coming in to contact with the police means – not everybody is going to be bundled into the back of a police van, and thrown in to a cell for the night.  Somebody with autism might be having a meltdown in public, and the police may be called – but it is not predetermined that they won`t have any understanding of autism.  They may help the person, or simply talk to them to ascertain what has been going on.  Contact with the police doesn’t always have to be a bad thing as long as they have an understanding of autism.