Sunday 4 September 2011

I am the law

I'm not really the law, just in case you thought I was getting ahead of myself. Just borrowing a phrase from everyone's favourite Mega-City Judge, Joseph Dredd as played by Sylvester Stallone. I have to say that I always thought Dredd's appearance in the 2000AD comic was actually better than the Judge Dredd film but I am a fan of Sly so hey-ho.

This post on the law and autism came about for two main reasons. First is the recent publication of this paper by Geluk and colleagues* on the presence of autistic 'symptoms' in childhood arrestees and second is some interesting chatter about methods to address offending behaviour in cases of autism, or more accurately Asperger syndrome, on one of the LinkedIn groups. I should add that in this post I am going to concentrate on one small aspect of autism spectrum conditions and the law because the area is such a wide ranging topic.

Once again I will state that I am not expert in this area, and before you ask, no I don't say that because of the recent 'throw some doubt into your argument and it goes a long way' post a few days back. I have been privy to some conversations on autism and law enforcement down the years; probably the most interesting was with Dennis Debbaudt and his very practical advice to various law enforcement establishments about autism spectrum conditions.

Concentrating on the recent paper by Geluk, there are perhaps some interesting snippets of information to discuss. The crux of their paper was to suggest that somewhere between clinically-defined autism and clinically defined not-autism, an area of behavioural presentation exists that might be common in some cases of youth offending. The first thing that crossed my mind when I read this was the recent take on empathy provided by Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen. I am not for one minute suggesting that child offenders or anyone else are 'evil' or offering any opinion including on how SBC's comments have gone down with some parts of the autism community. I do however wonder if a lack of empathy might be contributory to some cases of offending behaviour. Let's face it, breaking into someones house or robbing them in the street is probably not the best example of empathy as was pointed out in a previous post. Makes you wonder how rioters involved in the recent London disturbances would score on tools like the Empathy Quotient?

Anyhow Geluk and colleagues go on to conclude that autistic symptoms might serve as potential markers for future delinquent behaviour. I was slightly uncomfortable reading this end statement. To me it just seems so generalised and at odds with how autism is presented in the people I know and have come across. I know this in itself is another sweeping generalisation (slap my wrists) and autism is not an automatic halo on a plate. Indeed, there have been a few recent reports of young men with Asperger syndrome / high-functioning autism allegedly getting caught up in some computer hacking but the question is are autistic traits really predictive of delinquent even offending behaviour? What does this mean for our modern society and constant reference to our over-worked criminal justice system?

This is a question that has been asked before. This article from 2004 by Tom Berney on Asperger syndrome from childhood to adulthood examines some of the main issues regarding offending behaviour in this population. In it he highlights a few important points, not least the "reluctance to link any disorder with criminality". The examples offered in his paper however and the potential reasons why there may be a link (boxes 4 & 5) provide grounds for discussion.

At this point I also think back to some fairly recent conversations on the Evolutionary Psychiatry blog about diet, psychiatry and offending behaviour. Aside from the potential link with nutrition discussed following on from studies like this one from Bernard Gesch, there is the slightly stronger connection between problems with attention and hyperactivity linked to offending behaviour. Could it be that there is some overlap between such symptoms and autism in the study group examined despite (I assume) being ruled out as a confounding 'externalising disorder'? If so, are we just shifting 'blame' from one label to another?

This is a complicated area which dare I say, is even more complicated than we realise. As autism grows ever more visible in the media and daily life, I assume we will hear more stories about delinquency and offending with autism spectrum conditions being mentioned in the text as a result of greater media exposure. The challenge is to ensure that autism does not follow the path of other conditions in terms of stigma and negative public perception, but through education, training and support those most at risk of potential anti-social behaviours or actions receive the provisions required.

To end a link to one of my other favourite 2000AD characters, Mr Dan Dare.

* Geluk CA. et al. Autistic symptoms in childhood arrestees: longitudinal association with delinquent behavior. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. September 2011.


  1. To me it isn't surprising, the new autism is the old learning disabilities,which have always been over-represented in the criminal population.School troubles, failure to advance in society have always led to trouble in the criminal justice system. But to equate criminality with autism is just overkill. They are attempting to draw attention as if they have come up with something new...they haven't. Autism doesn't equal criminality, it may equal greater susceptibillity to it.

    I think SBC is full of it. In his deep desire to find and treat modern day Hitlers, he neglects the fact that those type of people have no power without backing. Thus, empathy or lack of it must be seen on a societal basis. Being from America, I wonder how many indigenous peoples see us as savages.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I was in two minds as to whether to write about this piece of research given the sensitivity of the subject matter. Why did I post about it? Because it is research and is in the peer-reviewed domain so deserves comment. The last link to the psychscoop blog sums up the dangers of generalising such work and how stigma is a easy path to start down when things get 'generalised' and 'over-simplified'.
    Empathy or low levels of it (I don't believe anyone is truly without empathy) has been at the sharp end for many years particularly in connection to autism. Again it is the 'generalisation' that causes the problems - generalisation that autism is a global 'deficit' of empathy when it most probably isn't or at least is context-dependent; so just because someone scores low on a psychometric test does not necessarily translate as real life.
    I note also today that here in the UK, one of our politicians has blamed testosterone and hence risk taking issues for the actions of the bankers contributory to the financial crisis. Given the proposed link between testosterone and empathy also, does this mean that many risk-taking bankers fall on a similar place to those on the autistic spectrum on the empathy spectrum? Does it mean that the testosterone findings in autism simply mean more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviours and that combined with other factors brings a greater likelihood of action likely to bring a person in contact with the justice system?
    Delinquency and offending, this is a very complicated area. I posted not so long ago on some of the possible reasons why the crime rate is falling in the US (and elsewhere). The lessons to be learned from that story is that there is more than one reason why crime occurs and it 'aint necessarily just because someone might have a susceptibility to it.

  3. Actually, the susceptibility...I am thinking singularly of my son's birth father and his family. Lots of drug use and jail time.

    If a child was severely mistreated in childhood because of undiagnosed autism, it might make one more susceptible to the "Past history of violence, substance abuse, both of which are predictors for non-schizophrenics, too." from Psych-scoops fine blogpost.

    Enter any mental illness, not just schizophrenia. Why aren't criminality and substance abuse considered mental illnesses? They certainly are more damaging to self and others.

    This is a timely post. The Norwegian shooter was given a media diagnosis of autism. I only saw it once. Perhaps things are getting better. Just because someone does something crazy doesn't mean they suffer from the mental disease du jour, nor that what they do is indicative of what others suffering from the same mental disease would do.. It's like implying because you are robbed by a Swede, that all Swedes are robbers.

    My son and I walked through downtown Washington DC to go to a museum 12 blocks from Union Station. We went right by the heart of the homeless population, near the church that served them. Hundreds of homeless people, some mentally ill and talking to themselves, but most friendly as all get out. I wasn't afraid until I saw a young couple with the druggie look behind us.

    Sorry I am not more scientific.


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