Defendants With Autism Not Getting Adequate Support in the UK

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Defendants with autism in the UK are being failed by the criminal justice system, researchers say.

A survey of nearly 100 defense lawyers shows only 48% of autistic clients were considered by police to be vulnerable adults and 35% were not given the aid of an “appropriate adult.”

“Shockingly,” 38% of the autistic defendants in the survey were not given “reasonable adjustments” at the police station although their lawyers said this would have been beneficial, and 33% did not receive any adjustments during police questioning because their autism diagnosis was not known at the time, Dr. Rachel Slavny-Cross of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and colleagues report in Autism Research.

“The criminal justice system is failing autistic people because a large proportion are not recognized as vulnerable and so do not receive reasonable adjustments,” Dr. Slavny-Cross told Reuters Health by phone. “Many autistic people experience mental-health difficulties, which may be exacerbated during highly stressful experiences. Therefore, better support should be in place to safeguard autistic people during criminal justice system involvement.”

Autism education might help.

“Autism awareness training should be mandatory during police and judiciary training,” Dr. Slavny-Cross said. “If criminal justice professionals understand autism they are better equipped to adjust procedures to meet autistic people’s unique needs.”

To get a better sense of how people with autism are being treated in the criminal justice system, the researchers sent out surveys to defense solicitors and barristers who had defended an autistic client within the five years prior. To implement a case-control design, the lawyers were also asked questions about a non-autistic client charged with a similar type of crime as the one with autism.

Ninety-three legal professionals filled out their surveys, reporting on 93 cases involving autistic defendants and 53 non-autistic clients who were charged with a similar offense. Only 25% of autistic defendants were given reasonable adjustments, which are allowed by law in the UK Reasonable adjustments such as visual aides to assist with communication and allowing extra time for the person to process information can be made by police to assist the detainee.

In just over half of the cases (53%) that included trial by jury, the jury or tribunal of fact was informed of the defendant’s autism, the researchers note. In the surveys, lawyers noted that 59% of prosecutors and 46% of judges or magistrates said or did something during the trial that suggested these representatives of the justice system did not have an adequate understanding of autism.

“This is an urgent international problem and this study is long overdue,” said Dr. Alison Morantz, a professor of law and director of the Stanford Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Law and Policy Project, at Stanford University in California. “It should be a wakeup call to all countries, including the U.S., about the need to address the many barriers that people with autism face.”

“It’s an overlooked issue that has been festering for too long,” Dr. Morantz, who was not involved in the survey, told Reuters Health by phone. “It’s starting to reach the boiling point as incidents are publicized. My hope is that this will help trigger broader awareness, a more systemic effort to raise consciousness, police education and the start of increased legal protections.”

It’s an issue at every stage of interaction with the criminal justice system, Dr. Morantz said. “People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are typically disadvantaged in ways that have not been adequately explored or appreciated by stakeholders,” she added.

Dr. Morantz pointed to a case in Los Angeles where a family member called the police for help with an adult with ASD was experiencing behavioral challenges. An earlier time when the police had been called, the officers were helpful and understanding.

“The second time, tragically, the police who showed up had no training and ended up shooting the individual in question and he is now paralyzed for life,” Dr. Morantz said. “This is an illustration of the difference between when there are well trained police who can be part of the solution to behavioral challenges and those with no training who, when thrown into a situation, can be the cause of a terrible tragedy.”

The problems can be amplified when there is a combination of intellectual or developmental disability, like autism, and race, said Jasmine Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, in Philadelphia.

Harris, who also was not part of the new research, cited the story of a young Black man with autism who was sitting outside the library waiting for it to open. “Someone calls the police and they come and ask him what he is doing,” Harris told Reuters Health by phone. “He tells them he’s waiting for the library to open. They keep asking him questions. His fight or flight response is triggered and he tries to flee. The officer grabs him and tries to keep him there.”

“So when flight did not work, then fight kicked in,” Harris said. “It ends with him being arrested. And now he’s involved with the criminal justice system. He has to interact with the police during an interrogation and we don’t know what kind of accommodations he received. It can be incredibly stressful for someone on the spectrum.”

The young man was placed in detention “and his manifestations, anxiety, came out,” Harris said. “The officers said he was being disruptive and he was put in solitary confinement and that exacerbated his symptoms.”

Although a public campaign eventually got him released, the young man is a different person now, Harris said. “His life is altered by the process that started with a misunderstanding. He might have experienced all of this disproportionately because he was also an African American. Policing and criminal justice reform in the U.S. has to include both race and disability.”

SOURCE: Autism Research, online March 14, 2022.

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