A story about Autism and criminal justice

One Friday I did something I haven’t done since 1998. I attended a police station. Done worry – I didn’t do anything horrible but it was a situation worthy of discussion I think.

If you have read my autobiography or seen the documentary with me in you will know that the respectable person who writes this post was definitely not respectable in the past. Due to naiveté and falling in with the wrong crowd’ and then my untreated mental illness symptoms resting in me acting on intrusive thoughts commanding me to commit violence and self harm, I spent three and a alf years as a prisoner.

My life a that time was some kind of shadow existence. I hated myself and didn’t have any hope at all. Thankfully in 2000 I got some help and started to see things differently. I set myself on the path to my current self – accomplished, community-minded and positive. The journey was far from easy. I spent many years terrified I would return to my criminal ways. Thankfully I didn’t. My resolve and the support I received from family, friends and professionals enabled me to move past that life. I gained a bachelors, honours and masters degree, wrote a book, joined the public service, gave a TEDx talk, wrote some more books and built a public profile in the autism community, I was as far from criminality as one could get. My sense of ethics and responsibility is now so highly developed that it s hard to imagine I am the same person I was 20 years ago.

So, why was I at the police station on Friday? The reason was actually paperwork. Mr poor frazzled mum got an unexpected call from a police Sergeant in September asking if she could tell me to contact her colleagues to complete a court order to collect my DNA which was issued in 1998. Apparently police officers get behind in their filing too! When I spoke to the Sergeant she told me it was a formality and I had done nothing wrong (which I knew, due to me not having done anything wrong!).

I won’t lie, I was a bit stressed at the prospect of going to a police station. The good old Jeanette paranoia went into overdrive. Were they were going to lure me to the police station with the innocuous request of completing their paperwork and then frame me for some terrible crime? Thankfully my logic beat the paranoia (mostly). When I got to the police station I was taken back to the late 1990s by the smell. It smelled like every police station I had ever been in – a mixture of cleaning products and the leather jackets worn by the officers. I announced my presence to the man at reception and was shortly introduced to the woman who would collect my funny Jeanette DNA. She shook my hand firmly and thanked me for coming in. I was led to an interview room. Unlike in the past, the door was left open and not locked. I looked at the papers on the desk. The officers had evidently printed every page of my website. I had sent the Sergeant a link to my website. I wondered what they thought when they saw the video of me on Canberra local news talking about receiving the ACT volunteer of the year award. It was immediately apparent that the Sergeant and her staff thought I was a very decent person.

The whole experience was surprisingly very affirming. The sergeant said as I left that she was certain she would never see me again. I agreed. I gave the station a signed copy of my autobiography which thought might be helpful for them. I walked out the door and the Sergeant shook my hand and thanked me profusely for coming in to give my DNA.

As I left the police to their difficult but presumably rewarding work I reflected on my own history, Meeting those very respectful and impressed police officers seems to me to the final nail in the coffin of criminal me. I now feel I have truly left the past behind. Of course I regret the poor decisions I made and their impact on people around me but I am no longer any shackled to my history. I have paid my dues and (cliche alert!!) served my time. I’m done. Now I can be the person I was supposed to be.

Just some thoughts around criminal justice system involvement and Autism:

  • Autistic people can and do become involved in the criminal justice system. However, it is important to note that the vast majority of Autistic people do not become involved in criminal activity and for those that do, it is often for minor crimes for which they were not the instigator.
  • Often Autistic people can be influenced by criminals to commit crimes. This can come from the Autistic person being in a  place of social isolation and thinking criminal friends are accepting them and offering genuine friendship.
  • Women – and some men – on the Autism spectrum are often prey to predatory people – either as victims or accomplices We tend to be trusting and a little naive. This can result in us being used and exploited by criminals.
  • Some Autistic people can become institutionalised and feel contained or ‘safe’  in various institutions. If this institution is a prison they can become recidivists.This was part of my own reasoning around being in prison in the late 1990s.
  • Autistic people involved in crime often have very different reasons for it than non-autistic people. In my case I was very kind and sweet but also violent. This can confuse people working wth us.
  • Autistic people can struggle with understanding the consequences of their actions. When combined with involvement with a criminal partner or friend can result in criminal activities.

My book Finding  a Different Kind of Normal looks at a my experiences around criminal justice system involvement – Finding a Different Kind of Normal



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