Here at Olliers, we represent many clients who are on the autistic spectrum. It is as an area of our work about which we are proud, because we recognise that there is still a long way to go before neurodiverse clients are dealt with fairly by the criminal justice system. We do what we can to guide clients through what can be a bewildering and frightening process.
Many of our clients have been contacted by the police about alleged internet based offences. Whilst overall, autism does not increase the risk of offending behaviour – in fact, autistic people are much more likely to be victims of crime rather than perpetrators – in some cases it can be a factor. In our experience, this is often the case for offences that stem from internet use.
Many of those internet based offences relate to the misunderstanding of social relationships, or even sexual offences. Why is this? Well it may be because autism is a social communication difficulty. Some sexual behaviours might reflect some autistic symptoms, such as repetitive behaviours, collecting, inappropriate speech or even fixations with people. Or it may simply be because autistic people can be vulnerable on the internet, whether it be in terms of simply getting things wrong, or misunderstanding boundaries (or what is considered appropriate behaviour), or being radicalised themselves.
Many of the autistic clients that we represent are of average or above average intelligence. This can mean that others assume a level of functioning in respect of social or sexual relationships which is a mismatch with how they actually are. Many of our clients are in professional work or education. They may appear to be ‘high functioning,’ but have the social maturity of someone far younger. This may put them of risk of developing friendships with people who actually are younger, whether online or in real life. This is because those younger people may be at a similar emotional level to them.
This may be even more difficult for clients to navigate when those relationships are developed online. Autism may impair an individual’s ability to correctly assess the age of another person. For example, we have represented young people who have had relationships with those who are under the age of consent, because they have not realised that other person’s true age. Evidencing this can be key. We will where necessary obtain expert evidence that assists with persuading the police/prosecution to take no further action or discontinue such cases.
If an autistic person is socially isolated, they may well spend much more time online than neurotypical people. This in turn makes them more vulnerable online. They may be more likely to explore friendships or relationships on line. It may also be more likely that they use the internet to educate themselves about sex and to explore their sexual needs. When there is so much extreme and illegal material out there, this can be very difficult to navigate safely. It may be that an autistic person accesses such material and does not realise that it is illegal. If the police become involved, a highly stressful series of events may then be triggered: searches, arrest, interviews under caution, months and months of investigation, and perhaps even a court case at the end of it. All of this can be massively disruptive and cause a lot of harm to a suspect’s mental health.
More recently during the Covid pandemic, we have noticed that there has been an increase in enquiries that we have had about investigations involving online offending. This may be because an autistic client has been even more isolated than usual and has been spending far too much time online.
Autism may also mean that an individual struggles to put what they are doing in a wider context. They may not recognise that those depicted in the images that they are viewing are not willing participants. Accessing such illegal material online may be more to do with a naïve curiosity rather than deviance – and in terms of how these matters are dealt in court, if that is the case, it is very important to know.
Indecent Images of Children
For a small category of clients who have accessed indecent images of children online, their behaviour may be obsessive or compulsive rather than an indication of whether or not they are likely to act on their sexual interests. Rick assessments put in place by the Probation Service may not reflect this, as they are often based upon the quantity of images accessed rather than what may be the result of an autistic person’s compulsive collecting. It is a very difficult area, which is why here at Olliers we make sure that we obtain expert evidence on such points, especially in cases involving large amounts of images. This is because it can make a key difference in terms of mitigation and eventual sentence.
It is essential that a solicitor representing an autistic client properly understands how autism might be relevant to offending behaviour. That is not to say that autism is going to necessarily provide a defence – after all, you can of course be autistic and know perfectly well that risky, damaging and illegal behaviours are illegal but choose to do them anyway. But it can sometimes be an explanation as to why someone has behaved in a certain way.
In cases involving indecent images of children, we are often contacted after the initial arrest. The effect on a client or on their family can be devastating. Such cases usually take many, many months (even years) to reach a conclusion, because there is such a huge backlog of electronic material waiting to be analysed by police forensic experts. This delay in decision-making can increase anxiety for a client, but we will use that time to provide proactive advice. We do not believe in sitting and waiting it out: there may in fact be a lot that a client can do to put themselves in the best position possible. For example, if we think that expert evidence may assist with trying to persuade the Crown Prosecution Service to refuse charge or caution somebody rather than charge, we will advise you how to approach this. Maybe you suspect you are autistic but like a lot of adults, do not have an actual diagnosis. We will help you get this done. We will also refer you to organisations that try and assist suspects in such cases, such as the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and Safer Lives. The rehabilitative courses provided by these organisations can make a real difference to representations on charge, or after charge, when a matter goes to court.
Here at Olliers, our experience in this area means we know what is likely to help in our cases. All of our lawyers are autism trained. We share knowledge of what works and we make sure we keep up to date with relevant areas of the law. We even campaign on issues, so ultimately the system treats our autistic clients better.
If you or someone you love and care for is in trouble with the police, please do contact us. We are sure we will be able to help.