By Carol S. Weinman, Esq., Autism Legal Specialist
“My son didn’t do this. He wouldn’t even know how to do this.” These are the words I hear uttered over and over again in my work with criminal defendants on the autism spectrum. That’s when my challenge begins. My mission: to persuade others in power to understand why this individual could not possibly have committed the crime he is charged with. Of course, each case is as different as each individual. In certain cases, it is possible that someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may have knowingly committed such an offense. But, in most scenarios, after reviewing all the information on this particular defendant, I arrive at the same conclusion – it just isn’t possible, at least not intentionally.
Of course, that assumes you understand ASD. If not, well then, all bets are off. If the police officer, attorney, judge or prosecutor views this defendant through the lens used for more typical criminal offenders, then the situation looks very different. The behavior that resulted in an arrest is perceived as criminal under the law. For the court and prosecutor, it is that simple. But, is it? I would argue it is anything but. Because ASD is very complicated. It is at times often subtle and unrecognizable to the uneducated eye. That’s what makes it so imperative that those making what can be life-altering decisions for these offenders understand that it isn’t what it looks like. This is exactly what I set out to do when I represented an individual charged with stalking.
This so-called criminal offender was sitting behind the wheel of his parked car for hours outside the alleged victim’s home, binoculars in hand and food on the empty passenger’s seat. A concerned neighbor called the police to alert them to what she believed to be highly suspicious activity. The police arrived, ordered the driver out of the car and proceeded to arrest him. When I asked my client if he understood why what he did was wrong or illegal, appearing obviously puzzled, he answered, “No.”
Fast forward to him being criminally charged with stalking, and a trial date set. I approached the prosecutor to plead the uniqueness of my case. I told her it isn’t what it looks like. In disbelief, she responded “Are you kidding? There were binoculars and food in the car.” I passionately persisted in my attempt to make her understand. She resisted at first, but I was able to bring her around to my way of thinking. The case never saw the inside of a courtroom and my client avoided a criminal conviction. Not all criminal defendants with ASD are this fortunate. That’s why the mission I have chosen to undertake won’t be expiring anytime soon.
Information on Stalking & ASD:
Characteristics such as difficulty in correctly interpreting interpersonal cues (signaling their contact with a person as unwanted), a perseverative focus on a desired person, and a tendency to ignore social or legal consequences puts them at risk to engage in stalking behavior (Haskins & Silva, 2006).
Three steps to interventions for stalking are:
- Determining why the stalking occurs – The function of the stalking behavior and develop a positive behavior intervention plan based upon the function.
- Teach replacement behaviors – social skills, perspective taking, pragmatics, and conversational skills
- Address restricted interests, obsessions and preoccupations.
(Information on Stalking & ASD Reference: Graduate School of Education, Touro University – California)
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