autism and criminal justice system

NAS now provides an autism training package for the police. I wonder what this involves.

The NAS website covers Criminal Justice with a Position Statement and some links. The Position Statement mentions stress and meltdown in unfamiliar environments, vulnerability to others taking advantage, and having difficulty following procedures.

Encounters with the Criminal Justice System must be crucial for parents, as so many issues could arise. Tony Attwood looks at this quite effectively in his complete guide to asperger's syndrome (pages 334-240). He includes some individuals being manipulative and experimenting with social situations or other people's reactions out of obsessive curiosity who could get themselves into trouble with the law. Special interests can lead to problems, like an excessive interest in cars drawing police attention, and confused sexuality can get them into trouble. Computer obsessions have led to hacking.

There have been instances of arson, stemming from experimentation, or injury done to others out of fear of bullies. And of course there is the iossue of being let astray trying to gain approval from unsuitable others. There are a lot of possibilities. So good advice on the criminal justice system and the police is invaluable.

The NAS website lists over a hundred solictors around the country, but less than 20% specifically mention autism, and only three of these are in London, some in small provincial centres. Most refer to learning disability, special education needs or mental health. Surely there is more legal knowledge specific to autism.

The website has a link to the Toolkit 3 from The Advocate's Gateway, a resource for courts about autism produced by Lexicon in 2013. There is a lot of useful information here, but the examples are worrying. I don't think it helps as much as it should.

Section 2 covers areas of difficulty, very much led by the triad. The example of rigid behaviour is an adult witness with autism who was permitted to give evidence wearing a lion's tail, which was his 'comfort object' in daily life. I've tried to find out what court case, but it is just an example in similar law papers, without source. What image of autism does this create?

On sensory sensitivity: "smells (even something as 'minor' as flavoured crisps) or colours, fabrics or materials (eg a different kind of chair might be needed). "Taking a short break to allow the person to calm down may save time in the long run".

I can see what they are trying to explain, but they do seem to have somewhat misunderstood the issues, or else their rather prurient illustrations suggest they are not really taking autism seriously. Are their lordships really getting the right kind of information?

The whole state of affairs over the criminal justice system is worrying. So I do hope these training courses are up to the mark.

  • One of the paragraphs in the advocate's toolkit concerned me because it covers so many not necessarily related things in nine lines. They could more effectively examined each of the factors as separate paragraphs, giving each a wider range of contexts.

    It is all perfectly valid but implies interdependencies that give the wrong understanding. For example is hand flapping a sign of fear? Or simply an aid to focussing attention? If someone was hand flapping would they stop proceedings for fear of a meltdown? And is a "short break" the same as providing a quiet place to recover? The latter need is not mentioned in the document

    NAS was among the consultees or authors and must have approved the document. After all there is a link to the document on the NAS web pages.

    "2.3 People with autism are prone to heightened anxiety and have a pressing need for "sameness" and predictability. Problems can be caused by new places, disrupted routines, strangers or other events deviating from normal experience. The individual often lives with high levels of anxiety and reaches 'overload' or 'meltdown' quickly. Responses to fear, confusion and frustration (including inability to make sense of questions) may include hand flapping, pacing, laughing, self harming, screaming, making non-verbal noises, feeling the need to run away and hide or losing control. These are efforts to stop the stimuli and retreat into a calm state. Taking a short break to allow the person to calm down may save time in the long run."

    Also, while the above may describe some people with autism, those with more extreme reactions are less likely to appear in court, either as a plaintiff (accused) or witness. The paragraph does not help identify someone seemingly fully in control of their situation, not stimming or showing ununsual behaviours, who could nevertheless have a meltdown. Surely the whole purpose of such documents is to help the legal profession and court officials understand autism. But without a full understanding of the possibilities, the court might completely misunderstand a meltdown that wasn't preceded by hand flapping, pacing, laughing, self harming.....

    Another paragraph which puzzled me was "Those who speak may have difficulty with personal pronouns (eg easily muddling up 'I' and 'you') and terms for space and time (here, there, come, go)".

    It might well be the case that some people with autism have that problem but I couldn't find it looking it up in books.

    What we need, in support of people on the spectrum who encounter the criminal justice system, whether the police or the courts, is the assurance that they fully understand autism, and that they aren't confused by unusual examples as to what to expect most of the time.

  • I've recently had the opportunity to visit a number of police stations to assess disability access and other disability related issues. The stations were within one authority so I don't know how representative they are. I saw mainly police stations but also one large custody suite. My TV police/detective image of grim smelly spartan interrogation rooms was rather out of date. My only concerns were that strip lighting prevails, which does have flicker issues, space in rooms is a bit cramped, and the colour scheme wasn't easy on the eyes. But a lot has clearly improved.

    The Economic and Social Research Council gave the results of a study on police interviewing of individuals on the spectrum last October, involving input from 400 front line and investigative officers. They reported difficulty getting a rapport with people on the spectrum and difficulty getting the right environment. However the researchers referred to bright or flickering lights and strange smells.

    West Midlands Police have produced guidelines on intervew and interrogation of people with autism (including asperger syndrome), written by Dennis Debbaudt. This looks broadly reassuring, and shows a good level of understanding. There are problems in the detail, but the document is vastly better than the Advocates' Toolkit 3.

    They do seem to have grasped the issues of false confessions or testimonies, either from trickery used to get a confession being more fortcoming from someone on the spectrum, and interviewees having good memory but maybe remembering things said to them during interview that are then repeated as fact (contrast that with the advocates' toolkit going on about poor memory). Friendly/unfriendly techniques (good cop bad cop) may also confuse because lack of social skills may confuse the interviewee with autism. Also people with autism may be more inclined to be truthful so techniques trying to expose lying may be inappropriate.

    I'm not saying I agree entirely with the deductions. But if West Midlands police are representative of wider national understanding, they seem to be making an effort. Compare that to the Advocates Toolkit which lives up to the notion of the law as an ass - how can the judiciary get things so wrong?

    The West Midlands Police have some notion of the eye contact issue, though it needs tweaking: "They may provide no eye contact at all, even when a questioner shifts their position to obtain it. The person may have been taught to give eye contact but this may be perceivved as insincere, glaring, or fixated. The interviewer may mistake this unusual eye contact as a tension-relieving technigue used by a guilty person, when it is nothing more than a symptom of the condition of autism".

    OK I could recommend some refinement, but West Midlands Police seem to have taken eye contact on board. Compare that to the advocates' toolkit which only says "The person may not sustain eye contact (or stare inappropriately)". I seem to be finding more comfort in the police understanding than the Judiciary. But people on the spectrum may have to deal with both, and for a profession that charges so much for its services, the lawyers need to get their act together fast.

  • No specialst solicitors found in the Wiltshire area. And used the list to look for one on NAS web pages to nothing local.  We used a dreadful solicitor who forced a full guilty charge where the judge worked out and reduced charge., but still no reports were done and no mitigation defence. . Probation were outrageous too. "You're using your ASD as an excuse!" From their mouths. Just still don't take needs serious. Next time round we could not find a specialist solicitor, he also does not take ASD seriously, but got the courts to pay for a psychiatic assesment.. told to plead guilty again, no defence side heard again, never seems to be a fair trial. What happened to listening to defendants? ASD adult wanted to plead not guilty, but the solicitor stopped him in the court room and forced the guilty plea dispite knowing circumstances the judge was not told. It's all so disgusting right now.