Autism and the Justice System

Arrested man in handcuffs with hands behind backFor the past twenty years, our office has represented many individuals on the autism spectrum. As those children grew into adolescence and young adulthood, some of them found themselves involved in the criminal justice system. Their parents were shocked that they were not receiving any special consideration because of their autism. In order to provide a context for the types of issues that caused an arrest, the following are some examples of the kinds of cases where we represented these young people.

  • Internet hacking
  • Stalking behavior
  • Inappropriate use of the internet to threaten individuals
  • Public behavior that intimidated other people (yelling that you will kill someone or will blow them up)
  • Use of the internet to access child pornography
  • Agreeing to do something (pick up drugs, steal) for someone else

Having autism does not in and of itself protect people from arrest or convictions and even prison. In an effort to be proactive and advocate for our clients, we counsel parents and individuals on how to interact with police. Most parents are stunned when their adolescent or young adult is arrested. They never had the conversation prior to being in my office.

The level of training and skill building will vary from person to person and the level of independence. That should be taken into account when having the discussion with the young person. In general, the following skills should be explicitly taught and practiced regarding police interaction.

  1. Recognize and respond to officers with a badge and police cars. Understand the role the police play.
  2. Stay with the police. Do not run from the police.
  3. Keep an appropriate distance when interacting with the police and anyone else. Don’t get in their face and yell.
  4. Keep your hands up and out of your pockets.
  5. Carry and be able to show the officers an ID card.
  6. Tell the officers that you have autism and/or produce an autism information card.
  7. Know what the rules are regarding sexual conduct and be able to recognize what is appropriate touching or sexual behavior.
  8. Let someone know if you are in trouble.

Dennis Debbaudt has developed an extensive and excellent set of materials and training for individuals with autism and first responders. They can be found at

Other Resources:

The Arc National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability:

Autism, Assessment, Research Treatment and Services Center (AARTS Center) at Rush Medical Center: AARTS Center

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About MickiMoran

Micki Moran is the founding partner of The Child and Family Law Center, Ltd. She dedicates her practice to providing legal assistance to children and families who are in need of representation in the areas of special education, disability law, juvenile and young adult criminal law, abuse and neglect, guardianship and mental health issues. Micki's practice is founded on the principle that children and their families require and deserve excellent legal representation with a multidisciplinary approach that works with multiple systems of care and creates communities that support and improve the quality of all peoples' lives.
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