Autism Spectrum Disorders in Prisoners: Part 2
by Lisa DiFalco
A recent study was reviewed in Autism Spectrum Disorders in Prisoners and found high levels of previously undiagnosed autism traits in participating prisoners. Yet, to further understand the needs of offenders, it is important to look at individual stories. Can we get a more nuanced understanding of the situation by looking at the issues as they affect one or two individuals? Part 2 summarizes recent stories that illustrate the issue of undiagnosed autism in offenders and prisoners for policy makers, case managers, mental health professionals and healthcare professionals.
A Story from the UK
Nicola Oxborough suspected her son Josh had autism or a related condition since he was four. However, he was assessed and did not receive a diagnosis. He grew into a young man who suffered from anxiety, violence and loneliness, and he used drugs and alcohol since the age of 15. Their story is told in ‘My son was jailed SIX TIMES before he was diagnosed with autism.’ The story highlights a broken system and a mother’s struggles.
Nicola believed her son had autistic traits from a young age. There are estimates that those with autism spectrum conditions have a seven times greater likelihood of coming into contact with the police than the general population and that 15 percent of young adults held in custody are along the autism spectrum. She shares early behaviors as a toddler:
“Trying to control him was a nightmare. I couldn’t take him anywhere because he would hit children and throw toy cars and bricks. He couldn’t sit and play with something. He hurt quite a few children. I don’t think he meant to, it’s just how he played. I’d apologise to the other mums and keep my head down.”
Josh showed angry outbursts and disruptive behavior in school. He was good at sport but never had the chance to explore the option with fellow students because of poor classroom behavior. Despite family counseling sessions, a diagnosis was never provided for Josh, and his behavior continued to deteriorate.
At 18, Josh was sent to prison for “breaching an anti-social behavior order” and smashing his mother’s windows for the second time. He was in and out of prison over the next few years. The probation officer in 2015 suggested Josh have an Asperger’s assessment. Josh was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a type of autism, at 26. Since then, he has received assistance from a psychologist and speech-language therapist and prescribed citalopram, an anti-anxiety drug. His mother notes the significant changes with a decrease in anxiety and a startling display of emotion. Nicola participated in the Southhampton half marathon and not only did he come to the event, but she shared:
“When I crossed the finish line Josh came to find me and said he was so proud of me that he wanted to cry. That was the first time he had ever showed emotion, which was very moving.”
Autism and a Virginia Inmate
Reginald “Neli” Latson is diagnosed with autism and is on trial for the assault of a corrections officer. Mental health advocates and others want him to be granted conditional clemency and transfer to a Florida treatment facility.
Latson’s history includes the assault of a police officer when taken into custody in 2010 and an attempted suicide in 2012 using an officer’s gun after a call with his mother. His latest offense is for allegedly punching a guard. A conviction may lead to a prison sentence of up to 5 years. Advocates have much to say about the lead up to his last offense. Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia executive director wrote:
“He is in prison because law enforcement, prosecutors, and correctional officers failed to understand or accommodate his disabilities, a problem that more and more people with autism and other developmental disabilities are experiencing when they interact with the criminal justice system.”
Virginia has a history of not following up with needed care after prisoners receive a diagnosis of a mental illness. Officials have tried to find other forms of treatment for those diagnosed with a mental illness. It was found that when the mentally ill population in the Virginia Department of Corrections was compared to state hospitals, it had 300 percent more inmates with a mental illness. States need to do a better job of meeting the mental health needs of inmates.
Latson could not understand and properly react to his restraint by a police officer. Julie M. Carpenter, Latson’s attorney, wrote:
“This is the sort of situation that an autistic young man simply cannot comprehend—he had done nothing wrong and yet the officer was restraining him—and the actions of the officer seemed threatening to Neli because he does not understand social roles the way others do.”
What Do These Stories Show?
There are faces to the statistics, and when children are undiagnosed and supportive services are not provided, a downward spiral can occur that leads teens and adults with autistic traits to display aggression and potentially be involved in criminal activity. More needs to be done in terms of early diagnosis and additional support of the mental health needs of affected individuals who are currently incarcerated. Without adequate treatment, it may be all too likely that aberrant and socially-unacceptable behaviors continue and are misunderstood. In addition, officers and prison staff need the training necessary to handle such issues when responding to calls and when handling affected inmates. New policies and training can make a significant difference to the current treatment of those with autism and their future experiences with the judicial and penal systems.