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Making autism education the new gavel in the criminal justice system

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, Dr. Erika Liljedahl, a psychologist and department chair at TCSPP, is calling on non-licensure forensic psychology students to help educate legal officials in understanding victims with autism in criminal justice disputes.

Picture a young man trying to court a woman in his town. He sparks up random conversations about his favorite topics, but she notices he repeatedly discusses the same interests.

Even when she loses patience with the repetitive conversation and brushes him off, he waits for her in places where he knows he can find her to repeat the same process all over again.

She tries a different tactic: She says she has a boyfriend. Instead of him recognizing that she’s trying to blow him off, he’s still just as happy to see her and believes their friendship is mutual. Meanwhile she’s fed up and gets a restraining order. He’s flustered by the terms of the restraining order and leaves a note on her work desk apologizing for his actions. But this work desk note violates the restraining order, and now he’s under arrest.

To a less observant source, these actions may seem justifiable. Now imagine this same young man is diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, also known as autism spectrum disorder. He speaks about restricted interests (his favorite topics), has social interaction problems (not recognizing subtle brush-offs), and does not understand the full weight of how his actions create reactions (note on the desk was technically not physically in front of her, just for her).

This is one of many examples in which those with autism may find themselves vulnerable to being involved with the criminal justice system. Verbiage, body language, social interactions, and patterns of behavior can all be factors in how one is treated within the criminal justice system. And for those within the DSM-5 who may not be able to control some of those symptoms, there’s often a gray area in deciding who exactly the victim is. In the example above, is it the guy with autism who does not understand his behavior is inappropriate? Or is it the girl who does not recognize that some of his behavior is involuntary?

Exploring the DSM-5

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition) identifies individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as having deficits with communication and interactions with others and having “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.” Autism is a neurological condition, and there is evidence that genetics are one component in the etiology. The ASD diagnosis is a true spectrum, whereas individuals can be more or less independent. Or, they can require much intervention (24-hour supervision or guidance) with regard to self-care and self-advocacy, including managing finances, school, and work. Not all individuals on the spectrum have all DSM-5 symptoms to the point of incapacitation. The saying in the autism community is true: “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.”

To a judge, jury, or officer who is not properly trained in how to communicate with someone with autism, some mannerisms may seem suspicious. People who fall within the DSM-5 may fail to have a back-and-forth conversation, emotionless expression, avoid eye contact, not understand orders for specific body movements (ex. arresting directions), shake from nervousness, fixate on inanimate objects as though daydreaming or uninterested, repeat questions instead of answering them, show extreme distress at small changes (ex. scenery), not recognize time frames (ex. alibi), have delayed comprehension for basic to advanced questioning (ex. interrogations), and not fully understand the weight of their responses—or lack of a response.

Connecting the dots between caretakers, autism, and CJS

Another recent example of that includes the reporting involving North Miami behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey and Arnaldo Eliud Rios Soto. Soto, a 26-year-old male with autism, had allegedly wandered away from a group home he was staying in and was seen outside in the middle of the street with a toy truck. Emergency dispatchers were called, and officers came to the scene with information from several calls about “seeing a man with a gun threatening to commit suicide.”

However, once Kinsey arrived on the scene and tried to calm Soto and the officers down, three shots were fired anyway. While Kinsey was on the ground with his hands in the air, still trying to identify Soto as someone with autism, he was shot in the leg while Soto sat cross-legged nearby.

“If the officer had the training, it is possible that he would have reacted differently,” says Dr. Erika Liljedahl, a psychologist and department chair at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “However, even with the short video clip, to the trained eye the man with autism is demonstrating behaviors that are typical of some individuals with autism. From my position as a psychologist who has trained in rehabilitation neuropsychology but does not work primarily with law enforcement, I do believe that training on the signs and symptoms of autism can assist law enforcement officers to better identify this neurological condition, which can help to de-escalate situations. Trainings could include videos of individuals on the spectrum to demonstrate the wide range of behaviors that can be misinterpreted by others.”

Although these events were clearly traumatic for Kinsey, they also had lasting effects on Soto, who is reportedly not eating or sleeping. The day after the incident, Soto went back to the same spot where the shooting occurred, pounded the ground, cried, and shouted.

“His injuries are long lasting because he does not have a method to deal with them,” attorney Matthew Dietz told CNN.

And while Soto still has an outlet in his group home, within the confines of the legal system, others with autism do not—even for those who may have their best interests in mind.

When education combats misunderstandings

If an attorney tells her defendant with autism that “now you need to answer the question since the ball is in your court,” the expression will be interpreted literally. The autistic person might be confused about there being no balls in the room and could start talking about the baseball game last weekend, which can be perceived by the judge as snarky. If the attorney is aware of the literal reaction that her client will have to the question, chances are much higher that she will phrase the directions in a different manner.

In a 2012 study with whether training law enforcement officers would help them identify and respond to individuals on the autism spectrum without exacerbating the symptoms or traumatizing them physically or emotionally. The researchers named a few cases where even children were handcuffed to reportedly control behavior. Of the 82 officers in the first study of this kind, the trained group showed more knowledge about how to interact with individuals on the autism spectrum. These types of studies may also help researchers learn how to improve relations between other community members with and without mental health conditions and law enforcement.

“Given the tensions between the community and law enforcement in this country, there can be a combined effort with law enforcement and community members to address these tensions,” Liljedahl says. “One helpful part is education. Education will not resolve all of the tensions, but it is a start to work at rebuilding trust and preventing tragedies as opposed to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.”

In an April 5 web presentation at TCSPP, Liljedahl discussed autism and the criminal justice system with the intentions of sparking more psychology students to get active.

“I wanted to inspire my non-licensure forensic psychology students to think about leading psychoeducation workshops for anyone involved in the court system in order to train attorneys and judges on the signs and symptoms of autism and how to interact with individuals on the spectrum,” says Liljedahl. “The ultimate goal is to properly get the truth and respect the person in the process.

“Unfortunately, there are attorneys that want the ‘win’ rather than finding the truth, and this approach can land an innocent person in prison. I envision a new movement where The Chicago School students can educate the courts on various mental conditions so as to prevent injustices that can easily happen given the setup of our criminal justice process.”

The Innocence Project, now in its 25th anniversary, is one example of a movement that aims to exonerate people who were convicted of a crime that they did not commit. Aspiring psychologists and other mental health professionals may be able to use organizations such as this, among others, to start the process of helping those with and without autism to be treated fairly in the criminal justice system from start to freedom.


Dr. Erika Liljedahl contributed to this report. She is a psychologist and department chair at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

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