Monday 3 December 2018

Disclosure of autism and juror perceptions

The paper by Katie Maras and colleagues [1] really interested me. It describes results based on examining "mock juror perceptions of credibility and culpability of a defendant who is described as displaying autistic-like characteristics and behaviours, and whether the provision of information about the defendant’s ASD [autism spectrum disorder] diagnosis alters these perceptions." Such investigations continue a theme in autism research circles and beyond on 'how autism is viewed' (see here and see here and see here) and how disclosure of an autism diagnosis might be important and influential in various circumstances.

Given the focus on the criminal justice system and autism in this post, I'm also going to pass some brief comment on the paper by Kamaldeep Bhui [2] too. That paper was more concerned with trying to "understand radicalisation, ethical and definitional issues, and how public health approaches may help." Minus any sweeping generalisations, the label of autism was also mentioned in the Bhui paper and could be relevant to the Maras findings too.

So, autism and the criminal justice system. This is not the first time that this topic has been discussed on this blog (see here and see here for examples) reflective of some ever-increasing research interest. It highlights how a diagnosis of autism is by no means protective of someone coming into contact with law enforcement services and/or the court system, and how various discussions are still needed on the hows-and-whys of such contact, as well as ensuring that those on the autism spectrum are treated justly and fairly in the eyes of the law.

In the Maras paper researchers report that: "One-hundred-and-sixty jury-eligible participants read a vignette describing a male who was brought to the attention of police for suspicious and aggressive behaviours and displayed atypical behaviours in court." The specific imaginary crime of this individual was "assault and battery of a police officer" where "the defendant was behaving aggressively at a train station and when police officers tried to restrain him with handcuffs, he became violent and struck an officer." Further details also included: "it reportedly emerged that the defendant was trainspotting and was upset because his train was cancelled."

Half of participants were randomly allocated to receive "Label+info" and the other half "no label". The 'no label' group received no further information about the defendant or any possible diagnosis. The 'label+info' group "were informed that the defendant had been assessed by a forensic psychiatrist and was diagnosed with ASD, and they were given further information defining ASD and how it impacted on his behaviours." Participants were then asked to make various judgements about the imaginary case and defendant.

Results: "The provision of a label and information led to higher ratings of the defendant's honesty and likeability, reduced blameworthiness, and resulted in fewer guilty verdicts, and more lenient sentencing." Various themes are detailed by the authors based on their findings: honest, inappropriate language, culpability and consequences.  Interestingly, on the topic of 'consequences', even some of those in the 'no label' group indicated that "they thought the defendant might have ASD" and how punishment would perhaps be less useful than "some form of rehabilitation to help the defendant." The net result is that jurors may be sympathetic to the presentation of autism in some contexts of involvement with the criminal justice system provided they are given the appropriate information about the individual concerned.

I take some comfort from the Maras findings that the law may not be blind to the circumstances around particular defendants and the crimes for which they are accused. Similar to the guidance here in Blighty when it comes to 'mentally disordered offenders' the law recognises that whilst crime is crime, sometimes things aren't always as straightforward as they seem (see here). By saying that I'm not trying to deflect away from why the law is there and the often serious effects that crime has on individuals (victims) and society; merely that 'context' is sometimes important too.

Going back to the Bhui findings and discussions pertinent to understanding radicalisation and particularly the idea that: "Common mental illnesses appear to be a risk factor at a population level for developing extremist beliefs, and psychoses and autism are reported as more common amongst some terrorist offenders" there are also implications. One has to be sensitive and avoid any sweeping generalisations when discussing this topic, but the issue of radicalisation and autism has been talked about before (see here). One of the primary themes to emerge from the growing data in this area is that a pattern of fairly unique vulnerabilities seems to follow autism that *might* make someone more susceptible to unscrupulous individuals intent on spreading their own agendas and getting someone else to do their dirty work.

Applying the Maras results to the Bhui discussions, one would hope that both mock and real jurors would apply the same logic as and when offences linked to radicalisation in the context of autism are presented to them. One would hope that a diagnosis of autism and everything that entails would be taken into account as and when such crimes are put to them. Indeed, perhaps that is the next round of study for Maras et al if they should wish to replicate their study: replace 'assault and battery' with something linked to radicalisation. I for one, would be interested in what results they observe and what we can potentially learn from them.


[1] Maras K. et al. Mock Juror Perceptions of Credibility and Culpability in an Autistic Defendant. J Autism Dev Disord. 2018 Oct 31.

[2] Bhui K. Radicalisation and mental health. Nord J Psychiatry. 2018 Nov 1:1-4.


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