Protecting your adult autistic child from criminal charges

An autism diagnosis brings a host of worries to parents, and those worries don’t lessen when the autistic child finally becomes a legal adult. If anything, having an adult autistic child that’s high-functioning enough to be mistaken for someone without autism can make you worry harder—especially about encounters with law enforcement.

It’s estimated that more than 3.5 million Americans have an autistic disorder. Those who fall on the high-functioning end of the spectrum often appear “normal” to police officers, which can be a disadvantage.

An adult on the low-functioning end of the spectrum who suffers from decreased verbal abilities and a lower IQ may be immediately recognized as someone with a developmental disorder.

On the other hand, a high-functioning autistic adult’s extreme reactions to being upset or being questioned may be interpreted by police as rude, evasive, suspicious or even purposefully defiant. One symptom of autism, called echolalia, causes some autistics to repeat words or phrases back to the speaker—something that can be easily mistaken for mockery.

Numerous other behaviors common among high-functioning autistic adults can be a source of problems during police interactions:

—Poor eye contact and an appearance that they aren’t connected with what’s going on around them

—Very literal responses

—Difficulty answering questions quickly, even to simple questions like, “Where do you live?”

—A hard time following more than one direction at a time or in sequence

—Lashing out physically, or attempting to break away from an officer because he or she doesn’t like being touched

It’s possible that an officer would misinterpret many of these reactions as symptoms of drug use or psychiatric issues.

Something as simple as a routine traffic stop could lead to a problem interaction with the police if, for example, the officer happens to pull over the offending driver right where your child is used to crossing the street. It may not occur to your child to cross the street at a different point, simply because it breaks from his or her routine.

Consider buying a medical alert bracelet for your autistic child and making sure that he or she wears it outside the house. A card with an explanation and your contact information tucked into his or her pocket may also help him or her get through an encounter safely.

If an autistic young adult is arrested, early legal representation is essential and may help avoid a criminal trial altogether.

Source: University of Louisville Kentucky Autism Training Center, “Autism Spectrum Disorders,” accessed Jan. 12, 2017

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