Autism's unique challenges for the court

Judge Chris McGuire — District Court Judge

Those on the autism spectrum present a unique set of challenges for a judge.

It is rare that these people commit crimes because they set out to be bad. There is almost always some identifiable logic behind their offending, which is likely to mitigate but not completely excuse it.

Physiologically, each person has a unique cocktail of sensory disturbances often affecting all five senses. For some, exposure to particular sound frequencies or fluorescent lighting may be physically painful. Some have hypersensitivity to touch. Any of these could trigger a “flight or fight” response, where they lash out or break things to end the sensory pain.

These reactions may bring them before the court.

Those thus affected have impaired social interaction, communication and imagination. They don’t understand social cues, such as knowing when they have overstayed their welcome, which can also get them into trouble with the law.

Their resulting social isolation leaves them easy prey for gangs and seasoned criminals who may “befriend” them, and get them to commit crimes.

They are likely to have deficits in expressive and receptive language, and are literal in the language they do have. They lack guile and, if interviewed by police, what they say will almost always be “God’s honest truth”.

They tend to plead guilty to charges, but have a poor understanding of the wrongness of what they have done.

The challenge for the judge is to drill down and figure out where autism ends and criminality starts, and craft a just but humane outcome. This generally means giving more prominence to rehabilitation than punishment. Fortunately, the crime rate of those on the autism spectrum remains low.

"The challenge for the judge is to drill down and figure out where autism ends and criminality starts, and craft a just but humane outcome"