This is the first in a series of case studies exploring how autism can influence entry into the criminal justice system and how it might be experienced once people with autism are in the system.
All cases are taken from real life examples from people that I have worked with personally, or that have been related to me by criminal justice professionals whilst I have been delivering learning disability and autism awareness training.
This first case study looks at the case of Sally (names have been changed to ensure anonymity). In many ways Sally is triply vulnerable – her age, she is a 'looked after child', and she has autism, although she would be considered to be quite 'high functioning'.
In this case, we see how failure to support people with autism appropriately and to meet their needs, and then poor responding to the resulting behaviour results in a criminal record for the individual.
Sally is 16 years old and lives in a children’s home.
She has been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage.
She admits to breaking a chest of drawers in her room in the children's home during an autistic meltdown.
However, she says that her care plan, designed to minimise such occurrences, was not followed.
According to the National Autistic Society a meltdown is ‘an intense response to overwhelming situations’. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control. This loss of control can be expressed verbally (eg shouting, screaming, crying), physically (eg kicking, lashing out, biting) or in both ways'.
This is a quote from an adult with autism who described it as:
“When you have a meltdown, it’s as if the world is ending. Everything is too much and you feel like an overwhelming darkness has engulfed your very being. Irrepressible anger that may seem completely irrational to an outsider … Smashing, ripping and throwing might be involved in an angry meltdown, as well as self-injurious behaviors to display outwardly the pain they’re experiencing internally.”
Sally was advised by her solicitor to plead guilty to a charge of criminal damage and offer to pay for the damage to the chest of drawers.
In Sally's case, the incident could be viewed as resulting from poor support and adherence to pre-existing care plans by the staff at the children's home. It also raises issues of capacity and culpability. Mitigation under the Mental Health Act is rarely extended similarly to autism – but how culpable really is Sally?