I need to preface this piece by saying I have possibly a rather different view on issues around criminal justice than many people do. Criminal justice issues are always going to be complicated and nuanced. Criminal behaviour is both an individual choice and a social issue.
I have the perspective as an autistic person who many years ago was victimised and also was a perpetrator. I will say that my offending was definitely NOT because I am autistic although I was taken advantage of by a criminal man who was a predator and this was my initial introduction to the criminal justice system and things just sort of got worse from there. Since 2000 I made a lot of changes in my life to be where I am now but it was hard start.
I met Polly Samuel who I knew then as Donna Williams in 2004. My autism diagnosis was then ten years old. It wasn’t long after I met Polly that she told me she thought that I should write my life story. The reason I stopped objecting and wrote Finding a Different Kind of Normal was this: Polly told me that she spoke at parent groups and there were often parents who would sit right up the back and leave before the socialising and cup of tea at the end of the meeting. Polly told me these were the parents of autistic young people caught up in the criminal justice system and they felt ashamed and excluded and if I wrote the book it would be for that group of parents and their kids. It took me a few minutes to realise that this would include my parents too. I finished writing it in four weeks and editing it in two more. I guess I had something of an incentive!
As Polly demonstrated, criminal justice system involvement is something of a taboo with most people and seems to be even more so in the autism community. I suspect this is probably due to a very big issue which persists today – that of stereotyping and using myths about autism to justify blaming criminal behaviour on autism itself. By implication, we are all emotionless, cruel monsters who don’t know right from wrong. The idea of autistic people ‘not knowing right from wrong’ is pervasive in this space and is particularly damaging…and totally false I might add. If not knowing right from wrong was part of autism presumably we would all be in prison! Another harmful myth is around us apparently lacking empathy. This myth has done so much damage across a number of domains and is a pet hate of mine. It seems to have started from some quite flawed research but has since taken hold in wider society. In actual fact autistic people are generally very high in empathy but we tend to experience and express it differently to neurotypical people which for people looking for things ‘wrong’ with us presumably provides something of a justification.
In some instances, including a notable recent case in Victoria, Australia, autism has been presented by media outlets as an actual reason for offending behaviour, which is not only incorrect, it is also adding fuel to the fire of people who would hate and revile autistics and it adds considerably to stigma individual autistics face in the world.
Some people in the community are so horrified by these myths around autism and criminal intent playing out that they deny that any autistic person commits criminal acts. Sadly that is not the case either. Autistic people can and do commit crimes for a range of reasons. Some of these reasons relate to us being exploited, manipulated or taken advantage of by others with genuine criminal intent. There are other similar issues – autistic people being desperate to win approval of peers or a partner, which was what put my on my own very shameful path. In other cases autistic people can be accused and even convicted of crimes which were not committed with any intent but were misinterpreted. The movie I am Khan has an example of this – and is an excellent and very moving film too! Sometimes criminal acts are committed by autistic people who have been mercilessly and continually bullied and victimised and retaliate. Autistic people also commit crimes for the same kinds of reasons other people do. It is a small minority of autistics who become caught up in the justice system but it does happen, as I am living proof of I suppose!
As you are reading my blog I imagine you have some idea of who I am and what work I do in the Autism community. I am one of those people who was swept under the rug. I was a person with huge issues around offending behaviour yet now I am seen as a role model and a community leader. We are responsible for each act we make.
Stereotyping and demonising autistic people is not going to address anything in the justice space or anywhere else for that matter – it will not reduce offending behaviour. What it will do is generate more prejudice and stigma. It will almost certainly confuse judicial staff, corrections staff and police. This is a huge issue as many employees in the justice system could really benefit from accurate, sensible autism training and knowledge. First responders particularly need better autism knowledge and disability knowledge more broadly as a matter of safety. And way beyond the justice system, these sorts of stigma and myths will contribute to autistic people being demonised and victimised across the board. I say no myths and no taboos – both are damaging. Let’s just help support people and work to ensure the world is a safer and more inclusive and respectful place.