Monday, January 24, 2011

Autism and the law: is Autism an excuse?

I recently had this question presented to me and it's an interesting one. Advocates opinions will vary, but I will try to explain to you how it is and isn't an excuse.

First of all, when dealing with any disorder of a person who commits a crime, the most important factor is their active knowledge of right from wrong.

If that knowledge is questionable, the person can be put through psychological assessment to determine their competency to stand trial. Even that doesn't guarantee that this person will just be set free back into society, depending on the charges at hand.

That's the second most important issue (or arguably equal in some cases), the offense that has been committed.

Third gets into the details of how the offense took place. Did the persons medical condition cause a situation that was out of their control? That is and has been an applicable defense in cases before.

Example of knowledge of right and wrong: The case of Nick Dubin, the doctor and advocate arrested for downloading child pornography. In the police reports, Dr. Dubin is reported to have admitted he knew it was wrong to do what he did. That admittance (coupled with the fact that he's highly intelligent with a doctorate degree) may be held as evidence that he knew right from wrong. Therefore, autism is not a defense against the crime at hand.

An opposite example could be the case of Zakh Price in Arkansas and other kids like him. Reports indicate he was being restrained and lashed out, kicking the principal. There are many cases like this across the country. Some of these children are being charged with assault. The problem is that their condition may have caused a situation beyond the child's control. A child with a sensory disorder (like with autism), is susceptible to sensory overload. If they are pressured too much, they will be forced into a fight or flight frame of consciousness and could lash out in attempt to get away from the extra sensory issues that are triggering them. Some cases have been dismissed and therefore, autism is an applicable defense.

There are many dynamics in cases and criminal offenses that may take precedence in deciding all of these factors. I should point out that this is the same, however, in any kind of court case. That's why we have courtrooms instead of lynch mobs.

What gets most advocates in an uproar, isn't the fact that someone with autism got arrested and they should just be let off because they're autistic. It's how the arrest occurred, the details and what they were arrested for. In most cases (that advocates care about), the person arrested can be shown to be have been mishandled. There have been cases where a person was arrested for "disturbing the peace" and "resisting arrest" and they turned out to have been severely autistic, otherwise mentally challenged, or even having an all out seizure. One case showed a man arrested for those two things and later proven to have been having a seizure from an allergic reaction. These are cases of clear failures in the legal system at the police level. These are the cases that raise hackles and sensitivities everywhere. It's a scale of unfair treatment that we want to see corrected. The only way to correct it is with education.

So, no, advocates do want a free ride for criminals. And that also should not be compared to wanting autistics accepted for being able to live life like anyone else or allowed to live life with equal rights as anyone else. We should also beware of anyone who tries to create stigma against all advocates or all autistics based on one advocate opinion or one person who commits a crime claiming to have autism.

So I leave you with this, 1) get all facts.
2) If you commit a crime and demonstrate that you knew it was wrong, you will likely be prosecuted no matter what conditions you live with.


Anonymous said...

I know a seventeen year old that has Autism.

He currently lives in a residential school and aggresses towards staff and other residents almost everyday.

He has severely injured staff in the past and seems to get away with it, because the senior staff of the school let him using the same old Autism excuse.

He functions mentally around 6-7.

David Wilde said...

Well Ross, if he mentally functions at 10 years below his physical age, he has quite a problem and therefore an excuse. He likely has great trouble controlling himself, his emotions, or anything else. If injuries are severe, they need to consider how they are handling him. Maybe their program needs a few tweaks to help protect staff and ease the situation. Not to suggest that would be in any way easy because it won't be.