By Carol S. Weinman, Esq., Autism Legal Specialist
What better time to initiate a conversation about encounters with the criminal justice system than during Autism Awareness Month in April? 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.
Carol Weinman is an attorney that specializes in autism legal consulting, criminal law, and special education services with her office in Fort Washington, PA. Carol additionally speaks at conferences around the world, including ISCRD. More information can be found at www.weinmanlawoffice.com.