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A different understanding? How the CJS discriminates against those with autism

13 May 2021

This is the second of two guest posts by Alex Reid. The first provides helpful context.

In 2019 my son Rob, 35, was convicted of harassment by a magistrates’ court. Because of his make-up, ASD (autism spectrum disorder) combined with mild mental illness, he had a faulty understanding of why he’d been found guilty and was now being punished with a community sentence: unpaid work, probation and a restraining order. Faulty understanding? To be more precise, limited understanding from a neurotypical viewpoint. He had his own version of events, typical of ASD. The verdict and the punishment were so baffling that to him they had to have another explanation. There was an invisible plot against him. He was being victimized for some offence he had committed, unaware, in the past. His response: despair, anger and depression, at times suicidal.

Mind-altering drugs played a part. Some will say that the mess was all about drugs, but this is nonsense. Rob was using drugs to make his existence tolerable – he was self medicating. Expert observers of high-functioning autistic people recognize that mind-altering drugs are often part of the picture, especially when combined with mental health problems. When Rob was off drugs he was mildly odd, a bit paranoid and depressed, difficult to engage but harmless, in fact, generous spirited. When using, he became acutely psychotic, a different person. I’ve lost count of the number of times an ambulance was called because of psychotic escapades which threatened to cause him serious harm or put him at odds with the law.

During one episode he broke the restraining order by sending a one-word text message (‘Hi’); in another he was sectioned for a few days because he was found walking on a railway line. In another he drove a car into a pond, then squatted in what he believed was an empty house. Here he moved a bicycle from a garage to the drive as a get-away option. He planned to return it later, had no intention of stealing (owning two bikes already), and was later astonished when charged with burglary – in the eyes of the law as it stands, outhouses such as garages count as dwellings and moving an item is theft. When the police arrived, he fled through dense woods, temporarily evading police helicopters and dogs, diving into a lake and remaining submerged (it was mid winter) as long as he could, thinking he’d be invisible to his pursuers. He was tazered, arrested, admitted to hospital and later a police cell. As usual, the local mental health team refused to get involved because drugs were in the picture. At interview, he said he believed he had been in a video game.

During the several months that this burglary charge was awaiting court, the already poor relationship with his probation officer hit bottom. This officer had heard of autism, but (on own admission) only had a sketchy understanding. Sometimes the officer was confrontational, at others disapproving. The officer implied that, because his ASD diagnosis was paid for privately, his family had in effect purchased him an excuse. Rob dreaded the meetings because he thought they were a ploy to trick him, Soviet-style, into admitting the (unknown) offence. Because of missing appointments and failing to engage, this probation officer prosecuted him for breach. Pending the court hearing, his solicitor, by way of defence, commissioned a psychiatric report from an ASD expert. It concluded that probation had failed him and noted that a private ASD expert wouldn’t prejudice their reputation by delivering a diagnosis unless justified.

Rob failed to attend court so was arrested and remanded in custody for breaching his supervision order, and because he was awaiting trial for burglary. On his first night in prison Rob should have been placed on the vulnerable prisoners’ wing. Instead, he was put on a regular wing to share with a violent individual. There was a disagreement. Rob was beaten up by his cell mate aided by others in nearby cells. “It was strange”, said Rob later, “suddenly there were no warders around to stop them”. He was concussed and hospitalized. I got no reply to the letter I wrote to the governor.

His solicitor now moved his case to the crown court in the hope of a more expert approach. Wise move: an exceptionally humane and intelligent judge now said that this was not about criminality, but mental health problems, and gave him a suspended sentence. Sadly – if that is the right word – Rob had another episode just six weeks later, again on drugs. So much for the deterrent effect of prison. Rob thought that there were people in his house intent on killing him; police and ambulance were called and, as usual, he was not admitted to a mental health unit but returned to prison. The arrest was forceful and painful: Rob’s reaction was to lash out with an ‘air bite’. He literally bit the air. For this he was charged with assault – a breach of his suspended sentence.

The police, by now well acquainted with Rob, openly agreed that he should be in a mental health unit, not jail. One woman officer tearfully told me that more than half her work was not about dealing with criminality but drug/mental health problems. If the mental health units had enough places of the right sort, she said, the police might be able to function in a properly focussed way, and the prisons would be not be overflowing.

After Rob’s second term in prison he got a new probation officer. She was in a different class to the earlier one, understanding that to make progress she needed to support, not confront, while also being firm. She brought in their autism expert – amazingly only two counties in Britain have ASD experts working with probation. It has made a difference. Rob’s anger, paranoia and drug use began to wane, slowly. A year later there have been no more incidents worthy of calling police or an ambulance, and his probation officer is thinking about shortening his supervision order.

However: Rob remains scarred by his arrests and spells inside, displaying many of the features of PTSD. Lapses are all too possible. His family are left to pick up the bits, an open-ended commitment. His reputation remains radically compromised and rehab is uphill work. You could say it’s up to him to climb out of the pit. It is, of course but, with Rob’s make-up, it’s more like scaling Annapurna – without crampons.

How to reform a system which treats Rob and his like as villains requiring punitive restraint, rather than minimal restraint combined with treatment? Rob’s story suggests two immediate areas for action:

  1. Provide annexes to mental health units or, better, self-contained ‘safe houses’ where people (provided they have relevant diagnoses and history) in short-term psychotic and/or drug induced episodes can be held securely until they calm down: similar to the ‘revolving door’ temporary admission policy to mental health facilities that was abandoned because of funding problems 20 years ago.
  2. Provide an autism expert to work with every local probation service.

These are a start. Much more needs doing to remedy the way the CJS discriminates against intellectual disability.