Asperger's Diary

Life through the lens of Asperger's Syndrome.

Autism and Law Enforcement: A Plea for Understanding

Autism and law enforcement - tragedy in the making?

Mark Haddon's 2003 bestseller, "The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time" begins with a harrowing, but I believe very plausible, encounter between Christopher, a teenager with Asperger's, and the police. Reading the account shows how easily a person with Asperger's can unintentionally find themselves in trouble with the law.

In the story, a neighbor's dog is killed, and Christopher is found with the dog's body. The police are called, and in the confusion, a policeman grabs the teenager and caches him unawares. He reacts by reflexively hitting out at the officer, who then arrests him for assault.

Take an abbreviated excerpt from the novel:

"The policeman looked at me for a while without speaking. Then he said, 'I am arresting you for assaulting a police officer.' This made me feel a lot calmer because it is what policemen say on television and in films. Then he said, 'I strongly advise you to get into the back of the police car, because if you try any of that monkey business again, you little s***, I will seriously lose my rag. Is that understood?'"

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<<Later in the police station>>

"'...I have spoken to your father, and he says that you didn't mean to hit the policeman.'
I didn't say anything, because this wasn't a question.
He said, 'Did you mean to hit the policeman?'
I said, 'Yes'
He squeezed his face and said, 'But you didn't mean to hurt the policeman?'
I thought about this and said,'No, I didn't mean to hurt the policeman. I just wanted him to stop touching me.'"

In this account, you can see many of the issues that can arise to cause a person on the autistic spectrum trouble with the law. In the conversation above, the officers use language and communications styles that could cause further misunderstanding and escalation.

People with AS are often very literal do not pick up on subtleties. If you "strongly suggest" something - the literal interpretation is that there is an option to say no. In this case, there wasn't, so the officer would have been better off giving a straight forward command. "Get in the back of the police car." Also, the use of idiom here makes ample cause for confusion - if you didn't know what "monkey business" entailed, or what it meant to "lose my rag," how would you react appropriately?

In the later part of this account, the character, Christopher, once again gets himself into trouble through his literal interpretation of a question. When asked if he meant to hit the officer, he answers "Yes", because in his mind it is the truth. There was no malice in his action - in his mind it was a defensive reaction - but it was what he meant to do, therefore the answer is "Yes". This part was handled relatively well by the inspector, as he asks follow up questions to determine Christopher's intent, but if the officer had not, you can see how this situation could escalate.

Last week a similar incident occurred in a Virginia Wilson's Leather store. A 25 year old man named Marcus Morton became agitated when, while returning a gift to the store, he was refused cash back on his credit card purchase. The situation escalated, the clerk began to feel threatened and called the police. The situation further escalated, and the young man was tasered by the police. When interviewed, a police spokesperson stated, "All he had to do is comply with the officers...He resisted arrest."

While I'll readily admit I don't know the details, I suspect that the situation was very similar to the account in Haddon's book. The officer may feel that it's as simple as "complying with the officers" - but were they sure that they were understood? As with the example from the novel, were they clear in their communications with Mr. Morton? Or did they use idiom and "suggestions"? Did they allow enough time for the person to understand what was going on?

Earlier in the encounter in Mr. Haddon's book, the main character states, "He was asking too many questions and he was asking them too quickly. They were stacking up in my head like loaves in the factory where Uncle Terry works. The factory is a bakery and he operates the slicing machines. And sometimes a slicer is not working fast enough but the bread keeps coming and there is a blockage."

This is not unusual. A common way I would describe this, is that the brain in a person with AS is similar to a computer which has a huge hard drive, but with a slow audio and video processor and not enough RAM. So, like a computer can lock up when it has inadequate resources to manage incoming data, so does the AS brain when too much is going on. You get "memory overflow" when there isn't enough room in the buffer to save the incoming data until it gets permanently saved on the hard drive, so data is lost.

Dennis Debbaudt's excellent site "Autism Risk and Safety Management," states that research indicates that people with developmental disabilities, autism included, are approximately seven times more likely to come in contact with law enforcement professionals than others.

So, I would ask - please. Be tolerant, and try to understand the differences.

If you work in contact with the public - become familiar with various ways people interact, take specialized ADA training that touches on not only physical disabilities, but invisible disabilities like autism.

Law enforcementIf you are in law enforcement, educate yourself, through sites such as Dennis Debbaudt's Law Enforcement site "Police and Autism" (especially his Handout for Law Enforcement).

If you are on the autism spectrum, learn how to stay safe.

If you love someone who is on the spectrum - learn how to help them to avoid unfortunate situations.

There are so many tragic situations caused by lack of understanding, on all sides. Please, let's all do our part to make sure we minimize these misunderstandings...and prevent these unfortunate situations before they happen.

 

 

Lynne Soraya is the nom de plume for a writer with Asperger's Syndrome.

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