Friday, 19 February 2016

Autism, Criminal Justice & Security Checks

I'm a blonde haired middle aged mum.  Comfortably built, quite short, a bit creaky in cold weather.  I dress in fairly conventional ways, I'm MD of a Professional Practice.  I live in an ordinary house in an ordinary suburb of an ordinary town.  I am also a Director of a Professional autism company, work for charities and organisations, and my work has informed the Government and the Police.  I haven't so much as an unpaid parking ticket to my name, thus far. 


Almost every single time I go through an airport or similar security checkpoint, I get stopped, frisked and checked.  Without fail.  Teams take one look at me, and pull me aside.  Sometimes several times at airports, per visit.  It's painful and exhausting for me.  Sometimes it renders me non-verbal, and then the whole thing is a waste of everyone's time.  I cannot do my training or take the meeting that I'm being paid for.

Now, clearly, there's a waste of security services effort going on here.  So, what's happening?  The thing that's happening is that I'm autistic, and I 'speak' a different communication system.

Autistic people have eye contact and body language that is different to others.  Even those of us who disguise this (for whatever reason) will still respond in slightly different ways. And security individuals are trained to spot the tiny 'giveaways' that something's different.  "Could this be a terrorist threat?  Something's wrong.  Better frisk her"...and of course each time they find they are frisking a surprised middle aged mum, not a master criminal about to conquer the world.  Conquering the ironing pile might be my limit.

The reason I do the work with so many security services across the country, with many of my fine colleagues?  Because they are fed up wasting their time picking out surprised middle aged mums and dads, etc, who happen to be autistic.  They need to focus on people who are actual criminals.  And so, understanding autism becomes vital.

There's some two million autistic people in the UK.   And if you're picking out 1 in 30 of the population who are just 'walking about in an autistic way', you'll soon get exhausted.  So will the autistic population.

Are autistic people more likely to be criminals?  No.  All the research we have suggests that we are more likely to be law-abiding, rule-driven and social-justice seeking.  The challenge is that most autistic people are repeat victims of crime, whether it's defrauding, violence, hate crime, sexual assault or otherwise.  It's vital to know how to interview and support autistic victims in the Criminal Justice system.  Enabled to give good evidence, autistic people can be very good witnesses indeed, with a keen eye for detail that others may have missed.

Are autistic people more likely to get into trouble with the law?  Yes.

How do we work out why that is, then?  How does a group of people who are desperate to obey rules, and are most usually the victims of crime,  then potentially end up in so much trouble with the law?  Several reasons.

Firstly - that misidentifying, as above.  And it can be worse for, say, autistic People of Colour, who may be at even higher risk of being misidentified as behaving 'inappropriately', when they are not.

Secondly, security checkpoints are sensory nightmares for most of us.  They literally hurt our brains, with beeping, physical contact, flashing overhead lighting, angry people herding us. Crowds jostling.  People rummaging about in our personal stuff and removing it from us. Massive noise where we can't even hear instructions.  It's very very scary indeed for many of us.  Thus,  some autistic people will panic and run, to get away from the pain.   Or will be a bit shouty out of terrible fear and anxiety.  An autism ID card can help in some countries...if the teams know what autism is, and what to do.  Minimise everything possible.  No eye contact, straightforward slow calm instructions...repeat if necessary...find a quiet place for recovery before any further aware it may take an hour and a half to let brain wiring literally cool down before speech and function can return).

Above, a picture of how a security checkpoint looks to me, under fluorescent lighting.  I can't process what I'm seeing well enough.  Nor can I hear well enough.  A 'refusal' to comply with an instruction may in fact be from not seeing or hearing, or being able to read, the instructions.  Be cautious about physical contact in such spaces as well; it can trigger a panic response because of pain from being touched.  It is rarely a deliberate and malicious resistance.

Thirdly - some autistic people are very persistent at seeking social justice and may not fully understand the rules for 'how much is enough'.  Add in loud voice tone (some can't hear how loud they are being), and seemingly 'erratic' behaviour, and it's too easy for someone to be misidentified as aggressive or law breaking. 

Autistic people are shown in research to be, on average, no more likely to be deliberately violent or nasty towards others than anyone else.  Most of us are gentle, kind, loving and very caring people, who are on average less likely to have a criminal record than other people.  But we certainly are relentless at trying to keep people safe and well, in society.  That's not a bad thing, provided enough social rules are understood by the autistic people, and provided enough about autism is known by the other people.

Fourthly - many autistic people are fairly naïve, because they rely on honesty and rules, and expect others to say honest and accurate things.  They are also often lonely. Generalising, of course.  But it's so hard making friends with non-autistic people. The two groups don't speak the same non-verbal language as one another,so both sides can misunderstand one another.

Example: Along comes a seemingly friendly person who says they will be our young autistic person's friend, if only they will help them by doing something criminal .....   It just doesn't occur to some of our autistic youngsters that this could be a bad thing.  That the person may be lying about being their friend.  That there could be something dodgy happening.  Often the criminal party in this will lie about the situation.  "No, it's legal, honest".   Guess who gets caught.   And then, the autistic young person is really literal in their answers:  If the Police Office, Solicitor or Barrister says, "Did you do it?" probably they will say yes.  Well, they did.  That's literally the answer.  But that's possibly not justice, because they may have had no idea at all that it was wrong.  The circumstances often aren't fully explored by the Court teams.  The actual criminal gets away with it, to prey on others next. The autistic person ends up with a criminal record.   And perhaps into jail goes a very vulnerable and confused person, to be re-targeted by every criminal in there.  Is society safer?  Arguably, no.  The criminal is still out there.

Then we get a small number of autistic 'computer geeks'.  They like exploring the internet.  It's a quest, a game,  an intellectual challenge.  And so good are some of them at overcoming barriers.that they end up breaking into secure systems.  Almost always not out of malice, personal gain or a hope to take over or destroy the world....but just because the brain design is about, 'How does this this a safe system or are there weaknesses in it?'  It's what makes some autistic people brilliant computer programmers or engineers, that ability to test for weakness and fix it.  Autistic teams arguably built the internet.  Bridges.  Planes.  Cars, Parachutes.  Medicines.  Test, re-test, test again.  Things that must keep going, safely, week after week.  Brilliant, when properly steered.  Excellent people to hire to make sure others cannot break in. Unfortunately, breaking into secure computers, without authority, isn't a good idea.  That autistic naivety may be the problem again.  Some just don't understand the consequences well enough.   Some may think that they are doing the security system programmers a favour by helping them strengthen weaknesses in the computer defences.  Obviously all people need to understand the rules, and criminal actions are never OK.  But it's too easy to suspect malicious motives when none exist, when someone is autistic.  I've seen some companies and Government departments do excellent thinking around this, and use autistic specialist focus to great effect.

Much of what I and other autistic professionals do is train Police and security professionals on how to identify possible autism, how to put us in spaces in which we can see and hear,   how to communicate well with us,...and how to ask good questions about the behaviour and its motives.  Interviewing in spaces we can access, and using technology or other methods that allow us to communicate well  if we cannot use spoken words at the time, is important.  8 out of 10 autistic people are sometimes unable to use spoken language.  It's not a refusal to co-operate.   

Knowing about autism saves wrecked autistic lives.  It saves costs in wasted time and wasted prosecutions.  It saves possible embarrassment in the press.   And it often leads to catching the real criminals.  The people who use vulnerable adults to do their 'dirty work'.  Know about autism allows autistic victims to access justice, lead safer lives, and have a far reduced chance of terrible life outcomes.  So many suffer poor mental health and a lifetime of suicidal thoughts because of the strain of repeat targeting, violence, bullying and fraud.

Autistic professionals who 'speak autistic' are a vital link in all of this.  Make sure you include autistic professionals in your quest for good, secure, cost-effective and meaningful work.  You'll have to meet with us in places we can access, but that's a very small price to pay for a safer and better world for those two million autistic people.

I'm very glad to be working with Police Forces and Security Services in various roles with teams, and pleased to see excellent work being done by other autistic individuals and by companies run by autistic allies, such as Autism Oxford and AT-Autism. We're making a difference.