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.