ASDs and Involvement in the Criminal Justice System
A number of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are involved in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) as either victims, witnesses or offenders. There is no evidence of an association between ASD and criminal offending. In fact, due to the rigid way many people with ASD keep to rules and regulations, they are usually more law abiding than the general population. People with ASD are more at risk as victims of crime rather than as offenders
This information sheet provides an overview of why people with ASD may come into contact with the CJS, the procedures involved and the sources of support that are available. The term ASD will be used throughout the information sheet to refer to people across the autistic spectrum, including those with a diagnosis of autism or Asperger Syndrome. It is worth noting that many people with ASD who come into contact with the CJS may be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
There are various ways to help ensure that the response of the police and other criminal justice professionals is appropriate if a person with ASD come in to contact with them. Preferably, these preparations should start from childhood. The following are some general tips:
- Ensure that the child or adult with ASD carries an identity card stating their personal details, emergency contacts and details of their condition. It may also be worth mentioning that the person has the right to an appropriate adult on this card (for more information on appropriate adults see the section on ‘At the police station’). Autism alert cards with this information on are available from the NAS. (See the useful reading and resources section at the end of this information sheet).
- If possible teach the child or adult to inform any police officers that they come in to contact with that they have autism.
- Remember that any unusual behaviour in a child with ASD that may seem cute or endearing may be interpreted as odd or threatening in an adult. It is therefore important to make clear rules about appropriate behaviour, particularly around obsessional interests from a young age. Rules can have their drawbacks for people with ASD as they may be adhered to rigidly and sometimes inappropriately. However, Howlin (1997) suggests it is generally better to establish strict rules during childhood that can be relaxed in adulthood rather than to implement stricter rules in adulthood which may then be resented.
- Social stories can be used to teach children and adults with ASD about appropriate social behaviour and what to do in certain situations. For further information on this, please contact the Autism Helpline, or see the resources section at the end of this information sheet.
- Investigate social skills training. Unfortunately provision for this is patchy, but in some areas social skills training is offered through schools, colleges or local autistic societies. There are also a number of resources available to use at home. For further information see the resources section at the end of this information sheet or contact the Autism Helpline.
- Keep all the written information you have about your child’s condition, for example their diagnosis and any specialist reports ever written about them. These may be useful if they ever come in to contact with the police.
- The Home Office has produced a useful leaflet Keep safe: a guide to personal safety aimed at adults with a learning disability. It offers tips on keeping safe in the home and out in the community. Copies can be downloaded from www.crimereduction.gov.uk/keepsafe.pdf
Why might people with ASD become involved in the CJS?
People with ASD experience difficulties with communication, social interaction and social imagination. In addition, they may have sensory difficulties and some coordination problems. Their odd behaviour may draw unnecessary attention, but in general ASD is a hidden disability and it may not be immediately obvious to the public or people in the CJS that someone with ASD has any special needs.
People with an ASD may come in to contact with the CJS for a variety of reasons. The following are examples of the main types of offences people with ASD may commit:
- Offences relating to social naivety. For example, the desire to have friends has led some people with ASD to be befriended by, and become unwitting accomplices of criminals. People with ASD often do not understand the motives of other people.
- Offences of an aggressive nature, which are often related to an unexpected change in routine or to the environment, which may cause great anxiety and distress. An example may include delays to public transport.
- Offences relating to a misunderstanding of social cues. For example many people with ASD have difficulties with eye contact. Often eye contact will be avoided or may be fleeting. In some cases eye contact may be prolonged or inappropriate and on occasion this has been interpreted as making unwanted sexual advances.
- People with ASD often adhere rigidly to rules and may become extremely agitated if other people break these rules, for example a man with ASD who would kick cars that were parked illegally.
People with ASD often do not understand the implications of their behaviour and due to their difficulties with social imagination often do not learn from past experience and may repeatedly offend if not offered the correct support and intervention.
In addition, the methods used by the police may exacerbate a situation for someone with ASD. For example, the use of handcuffs and restraint by the police may be extremely frightening for someone with ASD who does not understand what is happening, and may not be able to communicate their fears in an appropriate way. This coupled with the use of loud sirens may cause sensory overload in an individual with ASD who may then try to escape a situation by running away, or in extreme circumstances may hit out at people including the police. The very presence of the police may cause great anxiety to a law-abiding person with ASD who has no comprehension of the crime they may have committed.
Criminal acts by people with ASD may be due to a variety of factors, but it seems that there is rarely a deliberate intention to hurt others.
Initial contact with the police can be very frightening for somebody with an ASD. Should you need to advise the police on how to approach someone with ASD the following would be sensible suggestions:
- Switch off sirens and flashing lights.
- Keep calm. People with ASD can often sense anxiety in other people, which in turn can make them more anxious.
- People with ASD may not understand personal space. They may invade your personal space, or they may need more personal space than the average person.
- Approach the person in a non threatening way and keep facial expressions and gestures to a minimum.
- If you know the person’s name use this at the start of each sentence so that they know you are addressing them.
- Give clear and direct instructions slowly. For example, ‘Jack, get out the car.’
- Allow the person time to process information and don’t expect an immediate response to instructions
- Avoid using sarcasm, metaphors or irony. People with ASD may take things literally.
- Do not shout at the person with ASD.
- Make sure you explain clearly to the person what is happening. If you are taking them somewhere else, clearly explain where to lessen anxiety.
- People with ASD often understand visual information better than spoken words. It may be useful to use visual supports to explain to the person with ASD what is happening, or if they can read to put it in writing. More information on this is available from the Autism Helpline.
- If possible, avoid touching the person.
- Do not attempt to stop the person from flapping or from other repetitive movements as this can sometimes be a self-calming strategy for people with ASD and may subside once things have clearly been explained to them.
- Check the person for any injuries in as non-invasive way as possible. They may not be able to communicate if they are in any pain.
The police have the power to stop people in the street, and may ask straightforward questions about name address and where a person is heading. However, police must caution an individual before they can question them about a suspected offence.
The police can search a person, their bag or vehicle if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that they may find:
- stolen goods
- a knife or other weapon
- something that could be used to commit a crime, for example someone else’s credit card
Strip and intimate searches can only take place if a person is reasonably suspected to be hiding drugs or articles that may cause physical harm. An officer of the same sex must carry out strip and intimate searches. An appropriate adult must be present if the individual is aged under 17 or deemed to be a vulnerable adult. A record of the search must be recorded and a copy of this can be obtained from the police station if required.
If a person is arrested they must be informed of the reason. Reasonable force may only be used to detain someone if they attempt to resist or escape, which in the case of people with ASD is a possibility.
At the police station
Once a person has been detained they become the responsibility of the custody officer. While detained at the station people have the following basic rights:
- An interpreter if English is not their first language.
- An appropriate adult, for example a family member or someone from the appropriate adult scheme, if the detainee is aged under 17 or is deemed to be a vulnerable adult by the Custody Officer. Appropriate adults are usually volunteers. Their role is to look after the welfare of the detainee. They are not able to offer legal advice, and usually do not have any training in ASD.
- Notification of the arrest to a relative or friend.
- The right to speak to a solicitor in private. If a person does not have their own solicitor they can speak to a duty solicitor. In many cases people with ASD will refuse the services of a solicitor as they do not understand their role and become even more confused with another stranger involved.
- A notice explaining further rights will be given to the detainee named ‘criminal defence services at the police station and in court’. A full copy of this can be downloaded from the website of the Legal Services Commission.
Custody officers have to ask everyone that comes in to their custody whether they have a special need. Most people with ASD will reply ‘no’ to this question, as it is not specific enough for them to understand. By the time the individual is at the police station it is absolutely essential that the person with ASD or a relative has informed the police that the person has ASD, as custody officers are rarely able to recognise the condition. However, if the custody officer does suspect the detainee may have a special need the following process will be triggered:
- The Force Medical Officer will be called (usually a local GP, often with limited knowledge of ASD) whose main role is to decide whether the individual is fit to be interviewed.
- If the Force Medical Officer feels a psychiatric assessment is necessary a duty social worker qualified to make an assessment under s.12 of the Mental Health Act will be called to make an assessment. Social workers often have only limited training in ASD and may not recognise if someone has the condition.
- If the social worker identifies difficulties two signatures are then required from psychiatrists to take the person out of the CJS and into the mental health system. This does not necessarily mean that the individual will be sectioned.
The police may interview a person about suspected involvement in an offence before any charge is made. The interview will be taped and the interviewee is entitled to have a legal representative present during the interview.
Due to the difficulties people with ASD have with communication and social interaction, police interviews can be extremely difficult. The person may appear very able with a good or even exceptional vocabulary, and there may be no reason for an interviewing police officer to suspect that the interviewee will require any special help. However, the officer may later find they receive blunt answers, the subject is changed and the individual is reluctant to make direct eye contact. The literal way in which people with ASD interpret language can lead to them giving incorrect answers or becoming anxious. All these things may contribute to an assumption of guilt. Indeed many of the key interrogation techniques used by interviewers such as good cop – bad cop could elicit false confessions from a person with ASD.
The following are some suggestions for interviewing people with ASD in a manner which they may understand, and which should help elicit the correct response:
- Keep language clear, concise and simple.
- Use short sentences.
- Use the person’s name at the start of each sentence so they know they are being addressed.
- Avoid the use of any irony, sarcasm or metaphors, as these will be taken literally.
- Ask specific questions that avoid ambiguity.
- Be aware that the person with ASD may simply repeat back the question asked of them.
- If asked a ‘yes or no’ question a person with ASD may repeat back the first or last word said with no understanding. Dennis Debbaudt (2002) suggests asking a series of yes or no questions to determine the style and dependability of the response, and then to ask key yes or no questions.
- Allow the individual extra thinking time to process the information.
- Keep your facial expressions and hand gestures to a minimum.
- The use of visual supports may be helpful.
- The individual may need frequent breaks. Explain clearly that he or she is going to have a break for a specified amount of time and what will happen next. Signs that the person may be becoming anxious and in need of a break may include repetitive speech and hand-flapping or other repetitive movements, self-injury such as hand biting, shouting or physical behaviour.
- In all cases we would advise that a specialist in the field of autism, such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, be contacted. The Autism Helpline keeps a database of people who may be suitable to contact for this purpose.
Dennis Debbaudt (2002) has a useful chapter on the interview and interrogation of people with ASD in his book, which we would suggest police officers read before interviewing someone with ASD.
At the Magistrates court
In most cases people with ASD are unfit to plead in court. If an individual does not have their own solicitor, duty solicitors are available at the magistrates court. A solicitor may ask the magistrate to delay the proceedings until a psychiatric report can be obtained if they recognise that their client has a mental health condition or ASD. ASD is classified under the heading of mental and behavioural disorders under the International Classification of Diseases and is under the sub group of disorders of psychological development. This classification offers the option for the magistrate to proceed under mental health legislation rather than criminal. Under the Mental Health Act 1983 s.37, providing the magistrate is satisfied the crime occurred and that the person with ASD is guilty, the following options are available:
- Hospital order (this is quite rare).
- A Guardianship order where someone is appointed to act as a guardian for the individual.
- An absolute discharge.
In the Crown court
The crown court is for the most serious of offences. The accused person with ASD should be assessed for their capacity to understand the proceedings. The judge or jury can decide on a person’s fitness to plead and can draw on as many psychiatric reports as necessary in order to do this. It is essential by this stage to have a report from a specialist in the field of ASD. Details of a small number of specialists able to act in court cases are available from the Helpline. A solicitor may need to convince the community legal service that paying for this assessment is worthwhile. Sometimes obtaining medical reports from the person’s GP can make it easier to obtain a specialist medical report. In some cases a court may make a hospital order for 28 days for assessment. This will be usually be at the local psychiatric unit where there may not necessarily be a specialist in ASD.
If the client is found unfit to plead the court has the following options:
- Hospital order.
- Guardianship order.
If the client is found fit to plead the court proceedings will continue as usual.
The person with ASD as a witness or victim of crime
The suggestions for interviewing people with ASD mentioned previously would also be useful for interviewing someone with ASD who is a witness of a crime. As a witness people with ASD are entitled to be accompanied by an appropriate adult during an interview.
All witnesses aged under 17 years, and people whose evidence is likely to be diminished because they have a mental disorder within the meaning of the Mental Health Act 1983, or otherwise have significant impairment of intelligence or social functioning or have a physical disability or physical disorder, are eligible to apply for special measures. These may include:
- Screens to ensure that the witness can not see the defendant in court
- Video recorded evidence
- Live TV links, allowing the witness to give evidence from outside the court
- Clearing the public gallery of the court
- Removal of wigs and gowns in court
- Video recorded pre-trial cross-examination
- Allowing the witness to use communication aids.
Further information on this is available from the Crown Prosecution Service (see contacts section below)
A scheme using intermediaries to help vulnerable witnesses is currently available in Merseyside, West Midlands, Thames Valley, South Wales, Norfolk and Devon and Cornwall. An intermediary can help a vulnerable witness understand questions they are asked and can then communicate the witnesss response. Intermediaries can help witnesses at each stage of the criminal justice process. The scheme is being evaluated until 2006 and then will be rolled out across England and Wales.
People with ASD who are victims or witnesses of crime may require specialist counselling. Voice UK and Respond are able to offer this service to some people with the condition. For more information, see the resources below.
Community legal service
0845 608 1122
Able to locate local solicitors
The Law Society
020 7242 1222
Database of solicitors in England and Wales
The Law Society of Scotland
0131 226 7411
Database of solicitors on Scotland
Lawyers for people with a learning disability
020 7242 3332
Able to locate local solicitors with experience of representing clients with learning disabilities.
The Autism Helpline has a very small list of solicitors specialising in criminal law with an understanding of ASD. Please note that the Helpline is unable to offer legal advice. Tel: 0845 070 4004
Offers a telephone helpline and counselling for adults with a learning disability who have been victims of abuse, or who have abused others.
Organisation offering a telephone helpline and counselling for adults and children with learning disabilities who have been abused, and for their parents and carers.
The Autism Helpline has a small database of counsellors with experience of counselling people with ASD and family members. Please note that the Helpline is unable to offer a counselling service. Tel: 0845 070 4004.
Advocacy Resource Exchange
Has a national database of advocacy organisations.
Action for advocacy
020 7820 7868
Details of advocacy organisations in the UK
Appropriate adult schemes
National Appropriate Adult Network
Support for victims and witnesses
Organisation for anyone affected by crime.
Crown Prosecution Service
020 7796 8500
Produces a useful leaflet on special measures in the CJS for people with disabilities.
Intermediaries Registration Board
020 7035 8461
Complaints against the police
The Independent Police Complaints Commission
90 High Holborn
0845 300 2002
Website includes some useful easy to read leaflets on making a complaint.
Useful reading and resources
- Debbaudt, D. (2002). Autism, advocates and law enforcement professionals (London: JKP)
- Howlin, P. (1997). Autism: Preparing for adulthood (London: Routledge)*
- Hollins, S. et al. (1994). Going to court (London: Books beyond words) A very useful picture book about being a witness in the Crown Court. The pictures suit any crime and any verdict.
- Hollins, S. et al. (1996). You’re under arrest (London: Books beyond words)
- Hollins, S. et al. (1996). You’re on trial (London: Books beyond words)
- Autism alert cards. A mini-information pack for situations when communication may be difficult. The pack includes a key facts leaflet about autism and a credit-card style insert for emergency contacts.*
- National Autistic Society (2005) Autism: A guide for criminal justice professionals. Available through the Autism Helpline, or can be downloaded as PDF from www.autism.org.uk/cjp
American site with some useful information
Useful website outlining work of CJS
Useful website outlining the rights of victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants and prisoners amongst others
Related information sheets available from the Autism Helpline
- Autistic spectrum disorders: a guide for Criminal Justice Professionals
- Autistic spectrum disorders and prison.
Resources for teaching social skills
Howlin, P. Baron-Cohen, S and Hadwin, J. (1998) Teaching Children with Autism to Mind Read: A Practical Guide (London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd)*
Mind reading CD
Available from Central Books (see below). For further information, call the Autism Helpline.
Jude Welton (2004) What did you say? What do you mean? An Illustrated Guide to Understanding Metaphors
Gray, C. (2002). My Social Stories Book (JKP:London)*
Her website also has some useful information on social stories www.thegraycenter.org/Social_Stories.htm
If you require further information please contact the NAS Autism Helpline
Tel: 0845 070 4004Email: email@example.com
If an item is marked * as available from the NAS please contact:
Publications Department Distributors:
Last updated: August 2006
© The National Autistic Society 2004
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