Winthrop, Maine 1-800-273-5200

Programs - Autism and Law Enforcement - Facts for Prosecutors

Fast Facts About Autism

  • Autism is not a mental illness, but a neurologically based developmental disability, that significantly impairs the ability to communicate and to interact in a socially appropriate manner.
  • There is no cure for Autism, and the cause remains a mystery, although genetic links are suspected.
  • The prevalence rate of autism in the U.S. is 1 in 88 and four times more prevalent in males than in females.
  • Autism is called a "spectrum disorder" because it affects each individual to different degree.
  • Signs of Autism usually develop between 1 and 3 years of age

Common Characteristics of individuals with Autism

  • Some autistic individuals are non-verbal, and utilize an alternative method of communication.
  • Many autistic individuals are not able to maintain eye to eye contact, as they find this painful and intimidating. Their inability to maintain eye contact is often misinterpreted as evasiveness or deception.
  • Autistic individuals commonly have sensory issues. They are very sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells. Also, they often dislike being touched, especially if they are touched suddenly and without warning.
  • Autistic individuals typically have processing delays, and as a result, need extra time to respond to questions or instructions. They take things very literally, and may not fully understand instructions unless they are concise and clear.
  • Autistic individuals do not understand many unwritten social rules, such as maintaining appropriate body spacing, and their behaviors are often misinterpreted as rude or inappropriate.
  • Many Autistic individuals engage in self-stimulating (or stimming) behaviors such as rocking back and forth, flicking fingers, etc. This is a way for them to calm their system down internally.
  • Autistic individuals sometimes display "Echolalia", meaning they repeat or parrot back your words. This is often misinterpreted as "smart aleck" or rude behavior.
  • IMPORTANT: Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, or high-functioning Autism, may often appear to be functioning at a high level cognitively, due to their extensive vocabulary, language skills and intelligence. In reality, they are functioning at a much lower level socially and developmentally than their typical peers of the same age.

Because individuals with Autism often display many of the behaviors described above, people commonly mistake them for (a) someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs, (b) someone acting "suspiciously", or ©) someone who is being evasive or deceitful. As a result, individuals with Autism (and other developmental disabilities) are 7 times more likely to come into contact with law enforcement.

Things for the Prosecutor to Consider

Confessions- Any instances in which an autistic individual admits committing an offense, the circumstances surrounding that admission should be looked at carefully. Be aware that for an autistic individual, the process of being questioned/interrogated by law enforcement is an extremely stressful situation for a number of reasons. If the officer conducting the interview is not knowledgeable about Autism, he or she may ask questions too rapidly for the person to process, leading the individual to either shut down completely, or perhaps become combative. This can also occur if the environment in which the interview takes place causes sensory overload (too noisy, or distracting lights). The autistic person may make an admission in an attempt to please or befriend the interviewer, or because they think that if they admit something, the interview will be terminated. A trained investigator knowledgeable about Autism will make every effort to ensure that the individual is fully aware of their rights, and will ask open-ended questions that require more detailed answers than simply "yes" or "no". Ideally, the investigator would make every effort to have a parent, care-giver or other individual familiar with the individual present.

Criminal Intent- While the person with Autism may have, in the literal sense, committed a criminal offense, the assigned prosecutor should look carefully at the question of intent. For example, if a store owner approached a person with autism who was handling some merchandise and acting "suspiciously"and said "Get out of here", the person with Autism would very likely leave the store still holding the item. The police then get a call for a shoplifter. While leaving the store with the merchandise may technically be a theft, did the autistic person really intend on committing theft? Actually, they took what the store owner said literally and immediately left the store, not thinking that they should return the merchandise before doing so.

Trials- Prosecutors should take into account the processing difficulties of autistic individuals when questioning them on the witness stand, giving them adequate time to comprehend and respond to their questions. Be aware that many people with Autism do not show outward emotions, or may display inappropriate emotions (such as laughing during a serious moment). This often leads lawyers, jurors and Judges to misinterpret this behavior as a lack of remorse in the defendant.

Sentencing- The jail/prison setting is full of potential difficulties for the autistic individual. This population is VERY susceptible to manipulation and victimization, and if they must be incarcerated, they should be separated from the general population if at all possible. If that is not possible, jail staff should be vigilant in their observations of the inmate. Consider probation over jail time. Autistic individuals find comfort in routine, and can be successful when a regimented routine is established (such as meeting their PO every Monday, etc.).

Victim Concerns- At first glance, a person with Autism could easily be viewed as an unreliable witness or reporter of facts. Why? Being the victim of a crime is a very difficult situation to deal with for any person, but especially for a person with a disability such as Autism. In the understandable rush to obtain information from the victim in order to locate the perpetrator, investigating officer’s questions can easily overwhelm the person with Autism, causing confusion and anxiety. As a result, they may inadvertently provide inaccurate information. Later, when they are in a more relaxed atmosphere, they attempt to relay the events more accurately. Unfortunately, they are then seen as "changing their story", and their version of events becomes suspect. Any victim with autism should be interviewed in the presence of a parent/care giver, or other person familiar with the disability. If the interviewer is not keyed in to when the person is becoming overwhelmed, things will go decidedly down hill from there. Great care should be taken to proceed at a pace that is comfortable for the victim. The extra time will pay off in the end, with the interviewer receiving more thoughtful and accurate responses.

U.S. Probation Officer Matt Brown, a 17 year law enforcement veteran, and the father of a boy with Autism, has developed a 2 hour training program about Autism, specifically geared towards law enforcement and other first responders. The program has been approved by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, and is presented free of charge. For more information or to request a training session for your office, contact the Autism Society of Maine at 1-800-273-5200, or U.S. Probation Officer Matt Brown at 1-800-275-3691, ext. 232.

A.R.T- Autism Response Team

Goal: To ensure than when an individual with ASD comes into contact with the Criminal Justice system (whether it be as a defendant, victim or witness), (A) A just resolution is reached, taking the rights of the individual into account as well as the needs of the crime victims, and of justice in general, and (B) that at every step of the process, professionals within the criminal justice system who are trained and knowledgeable about autism are consulted.

Question: How do we accomplish this goal?

Answer: By forming Autism Response Teams (ARTs) across the state, consisting of Criminal Justice professionals representing every step of the process, all of whom are trained about autism. A typical ART would consist of: 1 Police Officer, 1 Correctional Officer 1 prosecutor, 1 defense attorney/public defender, 1 Probation Officer, and a mental health/autism professional.

Anytime an individual with ASD is arrested, or is victimized in a crime, the team would be immediately contacted for technical assistance, and the team would remain involved in the case throughout the process, to include (a) charging decisions/investigation; (b) Court options; (c) probation and sentencing phase.

Also as part of the program, informational pamphlets would be developed and disseminated to all the various criminal justice professionals (prosecutors/attorneys, correctional officials, Judges, probation officers), and regular training would be provided to these various groups as well.

On the following page, I have included examples of how the ART would be utilized, and they hopefully illustrate how the program could benefit folks with ASD.

Examples:

  1. Police, Prosecutors and defense attorneys will know that they need to pay special attention to "confessions", to make sure they are voluntary and truthful. Being trained about Autism, and having consulted with the ART, they will know that people with ASD will often admit to things that they didn’t do in order to please their interrogator, or because they are frightened.
  2. A Judge who has received autism training will realize that a defendant who is laughing while the victim of an assault is describing the incident, is displaying typical autistic behavior, and is not simply being uncaring, cold, or lacking remorse.
  3. The ART team, after learning of an arrest, can notify the correctional authorities so that proper precautions can be taken to ensure the safety of the inmate.
  4. A prosecutor who has been trained will know that when questioning an individual with ASD on the witness stand, he must allow them adequate time to process his/her questions, and to respond to them.
  5. Police contact the ART team to help them deal with a crisis situation involving a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome

By Matt Brown, Law Enforcement Autism Information Specialist
Autism Society of Maine