Although the last two decades have seen an increase in awareness and the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder, policy and practice to meet the needs of this group have not consistently kept pace. To combat part of this problem, the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) has awarded a competitive grant to local leaders who are working to improve interactions between autistic individuals and the justice system.
The award will fund a two-day conference in Summer 2020 that will bring together an international group of experts and will also fund development of a policy brief to share findings and promote change both within Pennsylvania and nationally.
Lindsay Shea, DrPH, director of the Policy and Analytics Center at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University and an assistant clinical professor, will co-lead the project with Cpl. John Burke, an instructor at the Philadelphia Police Department Training and Education Services Bureau. It will be administered through the Policy and Analytics Center at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. This is only the third policy brief awarded by INSAR.
This issue is also personal for Burke, whose teenage son is on the autism spectrum.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental condition that is diagnosed based on challenges with social communication and interaction. It is accompanied by sensory sensitivities, restricted interests, and/or repetitive behaviors. Individuals on the spectrum can become overwhelmed in new or chaotic environments.
Research has shown that autistic individuals are at an increased likelihood of coming into contact with law enforcement or other justice professionals, compared to their neurotypical peers. Understanding these interactions is important in order to develop resources, services and programs to prevent and/or improve them.
Since awareness of autism varies and autism presents differently across individuals, law enforcement personnel may not recognize autism and may respond inappropriately or unintentionally escalate the situation. For autistic individuals in police custody, a lack of access to clinically knowledgeable professionals or appropriate legal representation can put them at increased risk of a variety of negative outcomes, particularly if they are easily intimidated by unfamiliar surroundings or are unaware of their right to avoid self-incrimination.
Autistic individuals may also encounter similar challenges in the court system, where a lack of understanding of their diagnosis, needs and strengths can lead to misinterpretation by judges and legal professionals and can put them at risk of biased or uninformed sentencing.
These risks are further exacerbated in vulnerable populations, including low-income individuals and those in minority populations who may have fewer resources to successfully represent themselves in legal situations.
Even in situations that do not result in a criminal charge or sentence, autistic individuals and their families often walk away having experienced a negative, and potentially traumatizing, encounter with the criminal justice system. For individuals on the spectrum, criminal justice interactions may also add to the challenges that they already face seeking employment and other community-based opportunities.
"Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have been leaders in collecting data about autism and criminal justice system interactions and generating community-based responses through training, resources and convening community partners," said Shea. "The Philadelphia Autism Project, with support from Councilmember Derek Green, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, and the Autism, Services, Education, Resources, and Training (ASERT) Collaborative, funded by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, look forward to taking these next steps toward productive discussion and innovative solutions that involve experts from a variety of backgrounds and the autism community."
Philadelphia Police Department Spokesperson, Captain Sekou Kinebrew agreed:
"It is a privilege for the Police Department to contribute to the creation, development, and delivery of a protocol that will enhance our service to persons with special needs," said Kinebrew. "We look forward to continued collaboration with our partner agencies and experts in completing this vital mission."