During the introduction of my Autism Training for Emergency Responders class I talk about how special needs individuals are seven times more likely to interact with first responders, usually due to wandering, comorbid medical conditions and severely escalated behaviors that may mimic mental illness, drug abuse or just plain non-compliance.
What happens when someone with autism enters the criminal justice system? There are currently no statistics going beyond interactions in the field, but it certainly does provide a challenge and opportunity for myriad complications.
Problems with sensory overload, poor understanding of sarcasm, idioms and exaggeration as well as non-verbal communication such as facial expressions and body language can foster inappropriate responses that lead to trouble for the autistic individual. Add to the mix their trusting vulnerability and inability to deal with changes in routine or structure and people with autism often get into trouble without even knowing they committed an offense.
I’m not saying that someone with Asperger’s or autism will NEVER intentionally break the law, but so often these situations get easily misconstrued. The individual may have technically committed an offense, though the criminal behavior might have been an act of impulsivity, with no intent to do harm.
My son will repeatedly make a threatening or, at the very least, rude remark to me and then is shocked when I get upset with him. He has learned to apologize when I tell him he was hurtful or inappropriate, yet he has no idea WHY he’s apologizing because in his mind, he simply made a truthful or logical statement. Or he was repeating something he heard but has no idea what it actually means.
These kinds of “processing differences” could lead to him getting in trouble with the law down the road. The Asperger/Autism Network cites examples of unintentional offenses such as:
- Making threatening statements
- Inappropriate sexual advances
- Being an accomplice to a crime due to the influence of false friends
- Making physical outbursts in a public place or within the community
Criminal justice professionals may observe a high-functioning autistic person as appearing “normal” then diagnose their seemingly odd behaviors – such as lack of eye contact, changing the subject and blunt honesty – as disrespectful, evasive and belligerent. Sometimes someone with autism uses loud vocal tones, repetitive motions and laughter as a way to cope with both the anxiety of the situation and the overwhelming sensory environment, which is often misread as guilty and remorseless behavior.
The following strategies will help prepare you for successful interaction and communicating:
- Approach the person a quiet, non-threatening manner
- Allow more time for processing questions and delayed responses
- Do not interpret limited eye contact as deceit or evidence of guilt
- Avoid phrases that have more than one meaning or may cause confusion when taken literally, such as “Are you pulling my leg?” or “What’s up your sleeve?”
- You may need to repeat or rephrase your question
- Stick to narrative style questions rather than “yes” or “no” type questions – they are more reliable
- Be prepared to write down or draw out the question for visual processors
- Be patient – avoid becoming emotionally aroused and upset
- Be aware of sensory processing issues: keep lighting low, limit distracting images, eliminate the presence of non-essential personnel, avoid using perfume or aftershave if possible, and avoid touching the person unless absolutely necessary
- Seek assistance from objective professionals that are familiar with autism
Most police departments have a Crisis Intervention Team, which staffs a psych nurse and an officer trained in psychiatric crisis management. They have many tools available to them that other officers may not. If you suspect autism, seek assistance from department assets such as a mobile crisis team or unit early on in the legal intervention, as they can help identify if the person may require special assistance from psychiatric professionals.