Autism Conference IV (August 26-27)
Bill Long 9/4/06
Law Enforcement and Legal Issues
The second day of the conference was divided into various segments on how autistic people are dealt with in the criminal justice system. In successive hours we heard about some of the realities when autistic people are victims and how they are treated when they are accused of crimes. First, however, we heard a presentation of the Autism Tissue Program by its director, Dr. Jane Pickett.
Autism Tissue Program
Though Dr. Pickett now is based in San Diego, the "tissues" of which the program speaks are brains, and they are stored at Harvard University in MA. The ATP was founded in 1997 with the mission of securing brains of deceased people, autistic and neurotypical, in order to understand the structure of the autistic brain. To date 112 brains have been donated, of which 87 are from those who were persons with autism. The ages of the people ranged from 2 years 9 monts to 55 years. 17/87 were under 20 years old; 15/87 died form seizure; 21/87 died from drowning and 47/87 were under 20 years old. The hope is that by studying the brains both of autistic and neurotypical individuals that insight might be gained not simply into the neurological basis of autism but some of the causative factors of autism. Jane mentioned the "Minicolumn Study" of Manuel Casanova, as well as some work on "Mirror Neurons." She talked about a brain atlas project that interests the program and then she finished by describing some of the work on the basal ganglia, the amygdala and the cortices of the brain. Brain research is "in" these days, not simply for autism research but for all kinds of educational theorists. Thus, the work of the project was very exciting to me. I would look forward to a trip to San Diego to "see some brains," and learn how scientists decide what neuronic structures affect what in the person. It struck me that when Jane talked how little we actually know about the way that the brain works and the ways we might be able to stimulate it to act differently or to "improve" it.
Morning Session, Sunday August 27
Though I should have been calling my brother to wish him a "happy 56th" at the time, I continued to listen to and be engaged by Catriona (no relation to the hurricane) Johnson of the National Disability Rights Project. She spoke of a grant received from the US Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime by the Network to come up with an autism education curriculum in cooperation with victims' rights folks as well as law enforcement professionals. Entitled "Victims with Autism Assistance Education & Training Program," the curriculum is supposed to create a guide for ASA Chapters on working wiht their local victim assistance agencies and enhancing community-based victim assistance services. In addition, the study is supposed to develop fact sheets and brochures for the autism community and victim assistance agencies. When completed, the program should result in training of autism professionals and volunteers to fan out to communicate the nature of autism so that people with autism will be able to access meaningfully and benefit from victim assistance services.
Afternoon Session, August 27
Lunch provided us a welcome respite to interact with each other or to ask questions of some of the presenters. I ate with Judge Kim Taylor and asked her several questions about how she as a judge would deal with individuals with autism who appeared in her courtroom. I was especially interested to talk to her about situations where such a person was accused of a crime. When would she allow expert witness testimony in about the person with autism? Would this be part of the case in chief or only be relevant in a sentencing hearing? To what extent could a person with autism argue for diminished capacity? Historically the defense of insanity relates to people who cannot tell right from wrong. How does this relate to autistic people? If they don't have a diminished capacity, at least from the perspective of statutes that define diminished capacity, is there another thing specially prominent among people with autism that might lower culpability for a crime? That is, some have mentioned that the autistic child/person's inability to respond to commands or even questions when agitated makes it as if the person has no choice when s/he acts. The person simply freezes or "holds on tighter" or uses his physical strength, which may be extreme, to express himself. Is it possible that the concept of diminished capacity might be expanded in its definition in view of what we know of autistic people? I actually didn't pose that question to Judge Taylor; it has percolated in my mind in the days since the conference.
The final session dealt with offender trends, interrogation dilemmas and various tips and techiques to handle these issues. Gene Debbaudt, Dennis' Brother, a career Special FBI Agent, gave some startlingly candid observations about interrogations. He stated that he not only had no objection to the videotaping of the giving of Miranda warnings (he didn't speak as much, at least to my recollection, on the issue of videotaped interrogations, but the logic of his position should allow them) since police shouldn't mind having their techniques available to scrutiny. They should be professional, ethical and determined. When Robert Perske, who was still at the conference (he stated that he was so excited by the first day that he simply had to stay around to see how it "worked out"), heard Gene say this, he turned to him and said, "Really?" Robert, who has been working on issues of false confessions for decades, was seemingly amazed by Gene's straightforward approach to the question. I felt that if the exchange of Gene and Robert could have been on tape that the 7 states that now have statutes providing for videotaped police interrogations would soon be joined by the other 43.
Mention should also be made of the work of Dr. Richard Sobsey in Canada, whose pathbreaking work on mental disability and crime victimization was pointed out by Walter Coles. His 1994 work, Violence in the Lives of People with Disabilities, is now on my reading list. Too bad it is 12 years old.
As is normally the case when attending a fascinating and useful conference, much more could be said. I left with a sense of the paramount importance of "getting the word out" regarding autism to the larger world. It is surprising how little we know about it, other than what we can observe from persons with autism. Yet, there is a craving for more information and a sense that if we truly learn to understand people with autism we will not only understand them but also become more full human beings ourselves. That, in the last analysis, is one of the reasons that the field currently appeals to me.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long