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War Stories

Autisim and Criminal Courts in North Alabama

My client was a severely autistic young man. In addition to autism, he was also significantly retarded.

He had viewed child pornography on his computer and was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography.

When a person suffering from autism enters the criminal justice system, there are three considerations his lawyer and the courts need to be aware of.

Most people in the legal system are unfamiliar with autism and its implications when a person who suffers from this is accused of a crime.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder marked by impairments in social interactions and communications. The term essentially means someone who is immersed within oneself.

But there are degrees of autism, with some people on the autism spectrum being quite high functioning while others are severely limited. Because autism is a spectrum where a person falls on the autism scale is significant in evaluating their case. Other issues are often bundled with autism, such as mental retardation, although not always.


The first issue is whether or not a person with autism can stand trial. Do they have a sufficient understanding of the legal proceedings to participate meaningfully?

When this issue arises, a competency evaluation should be conducted.

Sometimes this issue is raised by the accused's lawyer and sometimes, the judge.

If the person is not competent to stand trial, then the court will consider whether or not the person can be restored to competency. If they can't, the court must determine the appropriate disposition for the case.

One issue of concern for the court is whether or not this individual poses a danger to the community and themselves.

In this case, we had reports from a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a counselor; they all concluded my client did not sufficiently understand the procedure for the case to move forward.

Based on this evidence and evidence that my client posed no risk, the state reluctantly agreed to dismiss the charges against my client, and the court did so.

Autism is not a free pass in the legal system. Autism exists on a spectrum, and some people are high-functioning. These individuals would probably be competent to stand trial.


The second issue (if a person is competent to stand trial) is whether or not the person's autism creates a mental health defense to be used at trial. If, as a result of autism, the person could not understand right from wrong, this could serve as a defense.

In this case, my client had looked at child pornography. The professionals concluded that he understood that while looking at pictures of naked people was morally offensive, he could not distinguish that looking at pictures of children- as opposed to adults- was illegal. This issue was not reached because this matter was dismissed through his being found not competent to stand trial. I can't tell you if a jury would've agreed or disagreed with the conclusion of the medical professionals, but if the case were tried before a jury, they would have been entitled to decide whether his autism presented a valid defense.


The third issue in which consideration of autism needs to be addressed is in sentencing.

Of course, if someone is being sentenced, it means that the court found this person to be competent to stand trial and that a mental health defense based on autism either was unsuccessful or not presented.

That brings us to sentencing issues. Sadly, individuals with autism are often taken advantage of by others, and, within the predatory nature of our jails and prisons, this could be significantly exacerbated.

Even the prosecutor in my case recognized that there was a significant chance of my client being hurt or killed should he be sent to prison.

Individuals suffering from autism may appear socially inept and lack many social skills that most of us have.

This can have a ripple effect affecting the accused during sentencing and afterward. For example, an autistic individual's behavior may be misconstrued by the court as uncaring when it is a result of their autistic condition that they don't display an expected emotional response.

If you have a loved one who has a degree of autism and that person is in the criminal justice system, not only do you need to seek the best lawyer you can, but you also either need to try to find a lawyer who is familiar with the issues not only of the case but autism or you need to educate that lawyer or make sure he's willing to educate himself on the unique circumstances presented.

Feel free to call if you have a case in North Alabama involving these issues.