.WEINMAN LAW OFFICE
AUTISM SPECTRUM: ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE LAW?
While it may be well known that many individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are victimized and bullied, it often comes as a surprise to learn that individuals with ASD are increasingly finding themselves detained in the back of a police wagon or seated in a courtroom at the defendant’s table. That’s why the demand for education and awareness on this timely topic is greater than ever before.
So, why are we seeing this rise in criminal offenders? For one, what may appear to be an increase in offenders with ASD may simply be attributed to an improvement in identifying them. The prevalence of autism is far more common than we knew. According to the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 individuals have autism and 1 in 42 males are on the autism spectrum. Secondly, police officers do not recognize the tell-tale signs of ASD and innocently mistake key behaviors as suspicious activity. And lastly, these so-called offenders do not understand that what they are doing may be wrong, let alone criminal.
Figuring out why we are experiencing greater numbers of ASD offenders is not as simple as it may seem. As is often the case, we must first pinpoint the problem before we can remedy it. Is it because police officers don’t understand? Is it because those with ASD lack the requisite mental capacity to understand right from wrong? Even if we begin to understand why this is occurring, what’s the fix? And, how do we balance the need for the public’s safety against the need to protect the rights of the vulnerable ASD population?
Here’s what I do know. While I am rewarded in representing criminal defendants with ASD, I am also left heartbroken. The issue of ASD and crime is complicated and there is a lot of work to be done. And, raising awareness is a good first step on the road to initiating change.
MY SON WITH ASD A STALKER?
These are the words I hear uttered over and over again in my work with criminal defendants on the autism spectrum. That’s when my challenge begins. My mission: to persuade others in power to understand why this individual could not possibly have committed the crime he is charged with. Of course, each case is as different as each individual. In certain cases, it is possible that someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may have knowingly committed such an offense. But, in most scenarios, after reviewing all the informationKER?on this particular defendant, I arrive at the same conclusion – it just isn’t possible, at least not intentionally.
Of course, that assumes you understand ASD. If not, well then, all bets are off. If the police officer, attorney, judge or prosecutor views this defendant through the lens used for more typical criminal offenders, then the situation looks very different. The behavior that resulted in an arrest is perceived as criminal under the law. For the court and prosecutor, it is that simple. But, is it? I would argue it is anything but. Because ASD is very complicated. It is at times often subtle and unrecognizable to the uneducated eye. That’s what makes it so imperative that those making what can be life-altering decisions for these offenders understand that it isn’t what it looks like. Which is exactly what I set out to do when I represented an individual charged with stalking.
This so-called criminal offender was sitting behind the wheel of his parked car for hours outside the alleged victim’s home, binoculars in hand and food on the empty passenger’s seat. A concerned neighbor called the police to alert them to what she believed to be highly suspicious activity. 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.”
Fast forward to him being criminally charged with stalking, and a trial date set. I approached the prosecutor to plead the uniqueness of my case. 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 ASD are this fortunate. That’s why the mission I have chosen to undertake won’t be expiring anytime soon.