Tony's case (names have been changed to ensure anonymity) is the fourth 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.
Tony's case highlights how 'specific interests' that people with autism might have can lead them to commit offences and become involved in the criminal justice system. As in this case, autistic people can also sometimes be be impulsive, show a disregard for personal safety or the safety of others and have poor ability to predict the possible conseqences of their actions.
According to his Mum, Tony had always been very interested in fire engines. When Tony was twelve he was arrested and accused of arson. Over successive weekends, the fire brigade had been called out to several fires in public bins in the town where Tony lived. They noticed that Tony was always present when they arrived to put the fire out.
When Tony was questioned by the police, with his Mum present as his Appropriate Adult, all he talked about was fire engines and firemen. He did not deny setting fire to the bins. It was clear that Tony was not interested in setting fires or committing arson, but that this was a means to an end - seeing a fire engine. Tony struggled to understand or predict the possible consequences of his actions - that the fire could spread or that while the fire engine was putting out the fire that he had started, that a more serious fire might occur and their might be loss of life because the fire engine was not available.
Tony was refered to the local Youth Offending Team (YOT) for an assessment. The YOT spoke to Tony's Mum and referred him for a multi-disciplinary diagnostic assessment involving a paediatrician, a speech and language therapist and a specialist psychologist. He was diagnosed as being on the Autistic Spectrum.
The YOT also contacted the local fire brigade and arranged for Tony to spend a Saturday afternoon at the fire station. He helped to clean the fire engine and make sure that all the equipment was in order. The fire brigade told Tony that if he wanted to come back again any time he could. Tony still visits the fire station from time to time, but since then he has not been caught setting fire to anything.