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Beyond Guilt or Innocence

by Dennis Debbaudt

Beyond guilt or innocence, when a child or adolescent with an autism spectrum disorder has contact with criminal justice system professionals, measures will need to be taken to avoid misinterpreting behaviors and characteristics typical of those with autism, as evidence of guilt, indifference or lack of remorse.
Currently, no statistics have been developed about the rate of contacts young people on the autism spectrum will have with the criminal justice system (CJS), although research indicates that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or other developmental disabilities will have up to seven times more contacts with law enforcement during their lifetimes, than members of the general population (Curry, et al, 1993). While there is no evidence to suggest that they will commit crime at a higher rate than the general population, those that do will typically be the more independent, so-called higher functioning person with autism or Asperger syndrome.

Youth with ASD often get in to trouble without even realizing they have committed an offense. Offenses such as making threatening statements; personal, telephone, or internet stalking; inappropriate sexual advances; accomplice crime with false friends; and making physical outbursts at school, would certainly strike most of society as offenses which demand some sort of punishment. This assumption, though valid at face value, does not take into account the particular issues that challenge the ASD individual. Problems with sensory overload, poor social awareness, semantic misunderstandings, inability to deal with changes in routine or structure, and little to no understanding of non-verbal communications, are the very kinds of things that make more appropriate responses to society very difficult for someone with ASD. For example, what appears as anti-social behavior to the 'regular" world, is often simply the manifestation of the ASD person's social misunderstandings. While most would see too many phone calls in the middle of the night as aberrant phone stalking, the ASD person might well view the situation as one friend wanting to talk to another, no matter the time or frequency of calls. And a physical outburst at school might well be related to the ASD person's sensory dysfunction or inability to deal with interruptions in the daily routine. So, while the individual with ASD might have committed the offense in question, the intent might well have been anything other than to do harm.

With few exceptions, there exists a skills gap in training for criminal justice professionals about how to deal with a rapidly increasing population of children and adolescents who have ASD. Without benefit of even a basic briefing, CJS professionals will struggle to differentiate between the stereotypical behaviors of autism and the typical conduct of an offender. The CJS pro will either get up to speed about autism or run the risk of mistaking autism spectrum behaviors as evidence of guilt in the suspicious looking, yet innocent person with this condition expending in the process both precious time and resources and fair justice for the youth with ASD and society. So, how does the presence of a diagnosis of ASD, America's fastest growing developmental disability, affect how that child or adolescent is treated in the CJS at different points in the process? For some answers, let's take a look at a typical but fictitious youth with ASD who is now in contact with the CJS as an alleged offender:

Although contacts involving children will occur, it will most likely involve a male teenager (ASD is found in males four times more than females) who is diagnosed with higher functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger syndrome (AS). The teenager will appear as normal, be more able academically and more independent than a child with classic autism. Yet, these strengths will mask social and communication deficits that go unseen or misunderstood by those he has contact with. The teenager's communications difficulties include hardships in making sense of the verbal and body language of others. His difficulty maintaining eye contact or his insistence on changing the subject of conversation to a topic of his choice-all typical diagnostic behaviors of a person with autism � can mislead the untrained investigator. The investigator may see someone who seems to lack respect and observe a "rude, fidgety and belligerent kid" who by nature of his lack of eye contact and evasive conversation, appears to have something to hide. Standard interrogation techniques that utilize trickery and deceit can confuse the concrete thinking adolescent with autism into producing a misleading statement or false confession. The teen can become overly influenced by the friendly interrogator. Isolated and in a never-ending search for friends, the teen can easily be led into saying whatever his new friend wants to hear.

What are ASD dilemmas for prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and judges? Left unexplained, the teenager's courtroom displays of laughing or giggling, his loud vocal tone, and aloof body language-also inherent to the condition of ASD-could lead many judges to conclude that this is, indeed, a guilty and remorseless young man. Everything in the suspect's demeanor says so. The ASD teen will have no idea of the effect his behavior is having on a judge or even his own defense attorney. Even the best defense attorney might see guilt in his client's display of behaviors. During questioning, initial contact or in a courtroom setting, an ASD teenager might display these additional behaviors and characteristics:

  • Inability to quickly process and respond to requests, commands and questions
  • Be a poor listener, may not seem to care about what you have to say
  • Be unable to deduce what others are thinking and why they are thinking it
  • Repeat the words, statements, body language and mannerisms of the investigator
  • Make statements that are tactless or brutally honest. If you are overweight, bald or smell of smoke or perfume, he may bluntly remind you
  • � Have difficulty recognizing slang terms or jokes. Ask "What's up your sleeve?" The concrete answer will be: "My arm." The ASD person will not recognize communications such as rolling eyes, raised eyebrows and other non-verbal signs of frustration and disbelief.

Those who interact with and question young people with autism or Asperger Syndrome will have their best chance for success when they:

  • Approach in a quiet, non-threatening manner
  • Talk calmly in a moderated voice
  • Do not interpret limited eye contact as deceit or disrespect
  • Avoid metaphorical questions that cause confusion when taken literally, i.e. "a hard time", "Are you pulling my leg?", "Cat got your tongue?", "What's up your sleeve?", "spread eagle" or "You think you are cool?"
  • Avoid body language that can cause confusion. Be alert to a person modeling your body language
  • Understand the need to repeat and rephrase questions
  • Understand that communications will take longer to establish
  • Use simple and direct instructions and allow for delayed responses to questions, directions and commands
  • Seek assistance from objective professionals who are familiar with autism spectrum disorders

In those cases where it has become clear that the young person has committed the crime and qualifies for a diversion or probation program, the offender may be further stymied by his autism. Traditional options might include group therapy with other young offenders. Meeting with strangers, group discussions about personal feelings, sharing personal information or contributing comments about others will be difficult conditions for the ASD youth to meet.

Corrections professionals can find success with the ASD population when they create diversion or probation programs that:

  • Use language and terms the teen will understand
  • Avoid the use of technical terms
  • Involve persons that the teen knows and trusts
  • Describe (use photographs) beforehand of the persons the teen will work with and venues they will meet in
  • Assure the teen that the new persons are safe
  • Utilize the teen's fine rote memory skills
  • Teach rules of program with visual aids
  • Use pictures to describe actions and situations
  • Create a chronological list of the program, develop a poster with bullet points
  • Discover what is important to the teenager with ASD. Avoid having them fit into what is important to you (Nightingale, 2003)

Incarceration will be fraught with risk for the ASD youth and anyone in contact with him. His direct manner, offbeat behaviors and characteristics will be read by other inmates as an invitation to exploit and control. Uneducated correctional workers, as those in law enforcement, will see a rude, incorrigible youth. Good behavior privileges will be hard to earn; sentences predictably longer. Those correctional professionals who work with incarcerated ASD youth will benefit greatly from a comprehensive training about autism and consistent access to ongoing assistance from a professional who is familiar with autism.

Children and adolescents with ASD should have the opportunity to learn how to interact with law enforcement and CJS professionals. Life skills training can help reduce the stress and risk of sudden interactions with law enforcers. This training also allows law enforcers and students with autism the opportunity to learn about each other and from each other in a relaxed setting.

  • How to call for help
  • To not run or make sudden movements
  • How to carry and show ID
  • How to recognize a law enforcer or first responder as a safe, "go-to" stranger
  • How to interact with law enforcers (through mock interviews)
  • How to report bullying, teasing and taunting to authorities
  • When to invoke the right to remain silent and ask to speak to an attorney

A basic briefing for the law enforcement and CJS workforce should be mandatory, more in-depth training should be offered for specialty units in law enforcement, prosecution, criminal defense, judicial and corrections.

A good, quality education will always be the best way to maximize the use of valuable CJS time and resources during interactions with youth with autism spectrum disorders.

  Curry, K., Posluszny, M and Kraska, S. (1993) Training Criminal Justice Personnel to Recognize Offenders with Disabilities. Washington, DC: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services News In Print
  Debbaudt, D. (1996) Educating the Public and Law Enforcement: A Handout for the Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency Law Enforcement Training Workshop Series. Detroit, Michigan: D-WCCMHA
 Debbaudt, D. (2002) Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
  Debbaudt, D. (2003) Safety Issues for Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome. In Liane Holliday Willey (ed) Asperger Syndrome in Adolescence: Living with the Ups, the Downs and Things in Between. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
  Nightingale, A. (2003) Asperger Syndrome and the Law Workshop. Winchester, United Kingdom. Hampshire Autistic Society
  Rye, J. (2004) Coping With Sufferers of Autism. The Magistrate. January, 2004, 21. London, United Kingdom.

Dennis Debbaudt. In the 1980's, Dennis Debbaudt wrote for the Detroit News, researched for Monthly Detroit Magazine and worked with network television current affairs programs in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. A professional investigator and freelance journalist, Dennis turned his attention to autism spectrum disorders in 1987 after his son was diagnosed with this condition. Over the past decade, he's authored numerous articles and books including Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders for Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London UK (2002) and Contact with Individuals with Autism: Effective Resolutions with Darla Rothman for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (2001). In 1999, he was instrumental in the development of the state of Maryland's Police and Correctional Training Commissions curriculum Why Law Enforcement Needs to Recognize Autism and the Autism Society of America award-winning Autism Awareness Video for Law Enforcement.

Dennis has nine years experience developing and presenting autism recognition, response and risk management information for workshops and at conferences for law enforcement, criminal justice and education professionals in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom. His new Autism Briefing Video & Booklet for Law Enforcement will be released later this year as will two new projects for Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Contact Dennis Debbaudt at [email protected], 772-398-9756 or visit http://policeandautism.cjb.net/ or http://www.autismriskmanagement.com/.

The Shriver Center

The Forum is a project of the UCE at the Shriver Center, a division of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Technical Support is provided by New England INDEX.

The DD Leadership Forum is funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Reprinted with permission by Dennis Debbaudt.


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