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Autistic people and criminality

Over the years, I have come across a number of stories of Autistic people and the criminal acts they have committed. Often, I find autism part of the discourse surrounding terrorism and random acts of violence. There are a number of factors at play in the development of criminal behaviour, and yet the media has a tendency to just focus on a person’s neurology.

Personally, I believe that the media focuses so heavily on people neurodivergence because it allows them to ‘other’ the criminal. When a tremendous act of criminality occurs, we don’t want to admit the cold, hard truth; given the right environment, any of us could break the law and/or behave unethically.

Being Autistic justifies the othering of criminals, we are able to place a distinct barrier between people using it. It is also indicative of the neuronormativity in society that we (as a society) can accept autism as a reason for criminality. Like many divergent neurocognitive styles, we are seen as inherently sub-human, so the public finds it easy to accept that we are dangerous or cruel.

Historically, we have dealt with ideas of criminal insanity. It provided a means to lock people away indefinitely. By denying a person’s capacity or “mens rea” on the basis of neurology, we justify inhumane treatment such as perpetual incarceration, forced medication, and assimilation by conditioning. Anyone who has been placed under section will tell you; there is a significant emphasis on how our outward expression and internal thought is “defective” and “disordered”.

So when we think about criminal acts with regards to Autistic experience, what are we missing with the medical model?

Autistic people are a minority identity. We are subject to systemic discrimination and minority stress. Knowing the links between social deprivation and criminality, we can start to form a picture of how an Autistic person might find themselves engaging in criminal acts.

We fave housing insecurity and poverty, especially by virtue of our under- or even un- employment. We are subject to structural failure of services designed to support us, not just because of our differences in culture and communication, but because we are pathologised for those differences. We are treated as challenging when we ask under-resourced services for our legal entitlement of support.

We experience clustered injustice. This leads us into life circumstances that lend themselves to criminal behaviour. We take drugs, drink alcohol, join gangs, and behave in ways that are considered antisocial. We desperately want connection, and often, we are exploited through that need by people who intend to leverage our vulnerability for their own gain.

On the topic of drug use; it provides a means to incarcerate and assimilate Autistic people. The criminalisation of drugs has a direct impact on Autistic people, many of whom live at the intersections of race, gender diversity, and psychologically distressing experiences. All of these intersections increase the likelihood of contact with the justice system.

If we want to reduce criminality and ensure that less Autistic people are absorbed into carcerative systems, we need to address the social issues in our society and the environments of Autistic people. If we can remove the multiple injustices that are faced by Autistic people, we allow for a world where criminality is not required to survive. Until such a time that this happens, it is likely that we will continue to witness revolving doors with people cycling in and out of the justice system in perpetuity.

Social constructivism and the making of ethical decisions in Autistic lives

TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of Do Not Resuscitate directives and the pandemic

Autistic people are subject to countless rules that are seemingly arbitrary in nature while having a huge impact on our wellbeing. It has been a source of much contention in our relationships with the non-Autistic people in our lives; and our questioning of these rules is used to label us as disordered and defective in a neuronormative society. When it comes to ethical decision making, I believe that Autistic people have a unique insight into the current state of society thanks to the recognition of the arbitrary nature of normative morality.

In the Autistic community, ethics and morality are based on community consensus, rather than the word of an individual or limited group. While we have no laws to recognise, I should at this point acknowledge that there are unwritten rules (although increasingly they are being written down through self-exploration in the form of writing). The ethics of our current unwritten rules are a further conversation to be had.

What I find particularly interesting is that the Autistic community takes a social constructivist approach to ethics and morality. We acknowledge the existence of normative social rules, but write our own based on the knowledge generated within our community. This has pro’s and con’s; the discourse in the Autistic community is dominated by privilege, I should acknowledge that I am far from the only cis-gendered white male to be publishing his opinion in this community.

Despite this, Autistic people seem to be in a unique position to recognise that ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to morality tend to fail marginalised groups. It could be argued that we recognise this due to our own marginalised status, but also because we have a strong sense of justice.

What is important about social constructivism is that it recognises that all ethics and morality is subjective. What is just and fair to one individual or group may infringe upon the rights of another. A good example of this was the implementation of ‘Do Not Attempt Resuscitation’ directives imposed upon the disabled during the pandemic. While it allowed for more resources to be freed up in medical settings, it was a direct middle finger to our communities right to life.

This is one of the biggest issues in socially constructed morality and ethics. Different people have different privileges, and we have been effectively taught that “more rights for the marginalised means less for the privileged”. This is abjectly incorrect; it is inconsequential to the privileged if the marginalised are treated equitably, they will still retain their rights.

Thus we have to recognise that morality in our own community is not an objective truth. There are many things that are considered morally right by consensus, that still fail to ensure the protection of marginalised rights. Many of us do not have Autistic as our only marginalised identity. The vast majority of us are in fact multiply marginalised.

We must identify how the subjectivity of our community ethics ignore the privileges that give rise to them. Until we do this, there will be imbalance in the ethics of the Autistic community.

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