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.