Jenny Paterson: A person’s autism must not count against them

The issue was debated at the SNP Conference in Aberdeen last week. Picture: Getty
The issue was debated at the SNP Conference in Aberdeen last week. Picture: Getty
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Understanding and support is essential, writes Jenny Paterson

Saturday was a landmark day for autism in Scotland. The need for a review on how our criminal justice system supports people with the condition was debated at the SNP Conference in Aberdeen,the first time autism has been a standalone agenda item at a party conference anywhere in the UK – highlighting not only how important this issue is, but also that decision-makers recognise the need to change and adapt so that people who are on the autism spectrum can thrive.

I joined the National Autistic Society as director for Scotland at the start of the year and immediately made increasing understanding of autism in our criminal justice system one of my goals. It is a goal shared by Mark McDonald MSP, who raised the topic at Saturday’s conference. Mark is a dedicated autism campaigner, valued supporter of the National Autistic Society Scotland, and father to six-year-old Malcolm, who has autism.

Like me, Mark is passionate about making Scotland autism-friendly. And like me, he recognises that while having special events in theatres, shops and sports clubs is undoubtedly part of achieving this goal, we also need to tackle the systems and infrastructure that underpin our society. This includes ensuring that people with autism receive fair and appropriate treatment from our criminal justice system – whether they are a victim, witness, suspect or offender.

The people we support tell us that they have been left vulnerable by a lack of understanding, and that this can lead to miscarriages of justice. This could be the defendant who avoids eye contact. But it’s not just about those who have offended – it could also be the innocent man alone in the street at night, shouting for no apparent reason. Or the victim who doesn’t report a crime. Or the witness who won’t answer questions. Autism is generally a hidden condition, meaning that police officers, solicitors, judges, and jury members could come into contact with someone without realising they are on the spectrum. Yet some of its associated behaviours could have an impact on the way those same police officers, solicitors, judges, and jury members interpret behaviour.

Like any other section of the community, autistic people can and do commit crime and the National Autistic Society Scotland does not seek to excuse this. However, in our experience, those on the spectrum are no more likely to offend than the rest of the population. Indeed, in many cases, they are unusually concerned with keeping to the letter of the law; this is a characteristic of the condition.

The case of Sam Barlow, the young man who received a three-year custodial sentence after being spotted with an air rifle on Shetland, underlines the need for understanding. I was heartened by the public response to this difficult case, there was real sympathy for Sam and his family. And while I cannot argue with the decision made by the court, I do feel an understanding of his autism might have ensured that Sam received better support before he reached crisis point and as he progressed through the system.

Significant first steps have already been taken. We are working with Police Scotland to inform its stop and search procedure. We will train all justices of the peace and sheriffs, and provide e-learning for the Scottish courts and tribunals service. Our Access Award will be piloted in courts in Glasgow and Aberdeen, with a view to rolling it out to all 60 across Scotland. And Inverness Prison will become the first in Scotland to receive an Autism Accreditation.

That’s impressive progress, but there is more to do. We need to explore how juries are instructed, how individuals with autism are questioned, how those who have committed a crime should be punished, and what kind of specialist support should be provided after a custodial sentence.

Criminal justice is not covered by the Scottish Government’s Strategy for Autism, so Saturday’s call for a review is both necessary and incredibly important. The National Autistic Society Scotland, as the leading charity for autistic people and their families, has a crucial role to play in pushing for change to ensure that victims, witnesses, suspects and offenders who are on the spectrum receive fair treatment when they come into contact with our criminal justice system. Their autism must not count against them.

Jenny Paterson is director of the National Autistic Society Scotland