Andrew Wilson: Compassion for people with autism finds justice wanting

Home secretary Theresa May. Picture: PA

Home secretary Theresa May. Picture: PA

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THERESA May will always have a secure place in a corner of my heart. Nearly three years ago, she threw out attempts by the United States to extradite Gary McKinnon, citing the protection of his human rights. He was accused of accessing US government computers online. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is an autistic spectrum disorder.

My heart went out to McKinnon and his mother, Janis Sharp. Around a year before, we learned that our oldest child Harry had a similar condition. It felt like our family’s world had crashed around us. Time has healed that thought completely.

Harry is nine and a wondrous, loving and lovable child. A parent’s conceit I know. He can also lose all control. His condition is very mild but can make the traditional trials of family life all the more testing for us all, not least his younger siblings. Parents of children at all points on the spectrum will attest to the pressures.

Harry is much less of a challenge than most like him, I think. But he is a challenge. His senses are heightened and sensitive and he is often confused as to why other people don’t see the world the clever way that he does. He obsesses about certain fads as many boys do, just odder fads.

He gets on famously with adults but can find his peer group a challenge. The subtle rules of playground exchange pass him by. Forming firm friendships has been difficult. Team sports and clubs are too. He can be gullible.

In a hard world too many kids like him grow into lonely adults, often ­undiagnosed and horribly mis­understood. So many tears flow because we all spend far too little time understanding difference and each other.

Many brilliant teachers struggle every day with the stresses of their job. The stresses of teaching with autistic kids in the class can be destructive. Such stresses are relievable with guidance and support.

My village primary school is a haven. The level of understanding shown by all to Harry has transformed him. Having started the school year hating his day, he ended it not wanting the holidays to come. We are very lucky. Happiness matters so much more than educational attainment. I trust the latter will follow in time.

Some are not so lucky. Many parents I have met are enduring a living hell of isolation within the system. Their stomachs churn at the trials of getting through each day and with their long-term dread about how the world will treat their kid when they can no longer watch over them as they mature.

All of us should be aware of this reality. Try and understand more and condemn less the people we regard as a touch at odds with society. That man in the street who apparently cares little for appearance and seems a bit rude or awkward is very possibly undiagnosed and unsupported.

Difference in all its forms enriches our world. But the civilisation process has some distance to travel.

For those living with autism the justice system can be a fearsome institution unless it can accommodate the realities of the condition when it comes into contact with it. Theresa May clearly judged that US justice would have been too brutal on Gary McKinnon and have failed to take account of his condition.

I wonder the extent to which the UK must look more carefully at itself as well. This week’s conviction of city trader Tom Hayes for Libor fixing troubles me.

The media description of any autistic person as “Rain Man” is truly absurd and must be stopped. It really must. More importantly though, the idea that the first person singled out for an example-led sentence in a global scandal has Asperger’s feels instinctively wrong. I understand many more people will follow in his steps and in the end we hope proper accountability is allocated and taken rather than scapegoats found.

I am not saying that his condition excuses anything. But I would like to be more convinced that justice is gentler than society when it comes to understanding the world of autism.

A motion on the draft agenda to the SNP conference from Aberdeen Don branch calls on the Scottish Government to consider ways the system can better understand and support those on the spectrum who come into contact with it as victims, witnesses, suspects or offenders. This is a very good thing.

Justice is the sharp end of the institutions we rely on for society to civilise. All who care about the welfare of others could do with learning more about a reality in the lives of more than one in 70 people. It is also five times more likely to impact boys.

Our instincts in life are often to reject and criticise those who don’t quite fit. This can be passive unwillingness to engage or it can be more active and hurtful than that.

But our personal ability to transform the life experience of others simply by our understanding and toleration of them is colossal.

What do we lose by running the risk that the person we might give the benefit of doubt is genuinely undeserving of our compassion? Just imagine the power for good in each of us if it turns out we were right to offer it. «

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