"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

11 Jan 2018

Criminalising Autism

I have never discussed autism on this site before, either in connection with my writing on tramps and cynics or more generally. Ever since I retired as head of an adult social services department some 6 years ago, following a lifetime working in and managing mental health and learning disability services, I have devoted a big chunk of my time to campaigning about the way that some autistic people are misunderstood, neglected, even abused, by the very public bodies who are supposed to protect and safeguard them. Paradoxically, those most at risk are often the ones at the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum. This is precisely because they may outwardly pass, and often want to pass, as non-autistic. These folk are more likely to have their behaviours perceived and misrepresented as anti-social rather than autistic, precisely because they spend a good part of their day out in the community, away from the family home or care system. The stories of Bradley Grimes and Marcus Potter below well illustrate the phenomena of the invisible ‘disability’.

The autistic person is vulnerable and encounters problems with everyday living usually, as they tell me, when they to come into contact with ‘neurotypical’ people. Left to themselves, and in the absence of those troublesome necessities of the modern world like managing bank accounts, a tenancy, or going through a job recruitment process (even though many can, and do), they can be entirely fulfilled and contented. But it is increasingly difficult to navigate the world outside of the all consuming powers and surveillance of state run and commercial bureaucracies.

To refer then to autism as a ‘disability’ should be turned on its head, in as much as it is the rest of the human herd that fails to understand or tolerate those who think and communicate differently from themselves. There are of course striking examples of where the potential of the autistic mind has been recognised and harnessed with significant benefits, both for those involved and wider society, most notably Silicon Valley in California where to be autistic is pretty much the norm. Then there is an entire unit of the Israeli army made up of autistic recruits engaged in high level intelligence work tracking computer generated satellite images (I make no further comment on the Israeli army’s wider contribution to a kinder, more tolerant world). Many arts and sciences university campuses are also likely to be autism friendly environments. Yet such examples as these do nothing to enhance the lives of the majority of people on the autistic spectrum who continue to be disabled by the neurotypical world’s ignorance and discrimination of the autistic brain.

But this post is not meant as an exposition on autism, there are dozens of scholarly texts already published for those who want to read up on all aspects of this misunderstood but fascinating human condition. Most notable among these are Olga Bogdashina’s books on proprioception, ‘theory of mind’ and other sensory perceptual issues that characterise the autistic brain. But in my view, the most important books on autism are written by those who, like Temple Grandin, are themselves are autistic. Most recent of these is Hamja Ahsan’s Shy Radicles (2017). Shy Radicles is a tragi-comic parody of a political manifesto for an imaginary state named Aspergistan. A natural sanctuary for the shy, the introverted and the autistic, away from the tyranny of the noisy extraverts who dominate and create misery for autistic folk across the globe (not that autistic people do not sometimes present as extrovert). The book opens with a draft constitution, examples of which are presented below in true Cynic style (I use the term cynic here in its positive definition as a personal strategy for surviving in a hostile world):

ARTICLE 8: Mainstream life has no place in Aspergistan. All politics will remain underground.

ARTICLE 9: Civic privilege will only be granted to the voice of the unheard.

ARTICLE 11: Any declarations, resolutions and motions made on a stage or raised platform will be seen not to represent the people.

ARTICLE 18: No one shall be required to attend or perform at social gatherings.

ARTICLE 21: The Shy Radical state declares the following a charade and part of Extrovert Supremacist ideology from which Aspergistanis seek emancipation: Patriotic public ceremonies; Military parades; … Shallow mythologising of historical conflicts and tragedies; Street parties and flashing fireworks displays.

ARTICLE 22: The flag of Aspergistan consist of a black flag punctuated [with ellipsis] … The flag will never be publicly hoisted. The flag may be used only by citizens wishing to silently indicate their request for quiet, solitude and personal space. …

ARTICLE 23: For sporting or cultural fixtures abroad, opposing or host countries will be required to listen to our national anthem using seashells. Aspergistan shall ensure the provision of a fit supply supply of seashells to the opposing team …

ARTICLE 27: Aspergistan will boycott any sporting or cultural event that does not ensure Autism-friendly facilities, or show respect to the rights of Autistic Spectrum people.

ARTICLE 30: Abolition of private viewings, opening ceremonies, launch parties and all other suffocating crowd gathering forms of the celebration of new cultural products, film seasons and exhibitions. …

ARTICLE 39: Abolition of strobe lighting, flashing lights, neon lighting and advertisement billboards from all public space ensuring the clearest possible view of the constellations. 

ARTICLE 60: Entry is guaranteed for all those seeking escape from the assault of mass distraction, triviality and frivolity.

Hamja is another reluctant activist. He only took to campaigning about autism after his brother, the award winning poet Talha Ahsan, was arrested in 2006 following a request from the US Government to have him extradited. Talha was detained in Britain without charges or trial for over 6 years before eventually being extradited to the United States—one of the longest such detentions without trial in British history. Unlike the similar case of Garry McKinnon (both involved internet activity, and McKinnon's of a more serious nature), whose extradition to the US was blocked by the UK Government on the basis of his autism and potential risk of suicide if sent to the US, Talha (same diagnosis, same risks) was extradited to the US and held in solitary confinement for nearly two years awaiting trial. Both cases are widely reported and readers can come to their own conclusions why McKinnon received different treatment from Ahsan.

I now want to have a personal beef that most of the publicity and campaigning around autism is targeted, not around vulnerable adults with autism, but around cute though troubled children like Joe in the recent BBC series The A Word. Many autism charities focus on children, campaigning for greater awareness in schools and colleges, forgetting that autism is for life and that without support and understanding—not to mention major changes in society—cute but troubled autistic kids may grow up to be less cute and very troubled autistic adults. This post is about what can, and does, happen to some of these autistic adults when they grow up and move beyond the controls and protection of parents and schools.

I will return to the cynic and tramping themes of my blog later, but I strongly suspect that many of my vagabond heroes, those who exiled themselves from the hostile world of mainstream society, may also have been on the autistic spectrum. James Boswell wrote in his Life of Samuel Johnson that, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” Many others have revived versions of this truism, including American President Jimmy Carter when he stated that, “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens [not that I wish to characterise autistic people thus]” If we accept such maxims at face value, then both Britain and the USA—both currently obsessed with closing their borders to those they regard as ‘foreign’, as well as scapegoating those within their borders who are the victims rather than the beneficiaries of the capitalist dream—are fast descending into a very uncivilised period of their history indeed.

But neither is this post a polemic on capitalism. I want to shine a light here on one of the most misunderstood and discriminated against groups of people in society today. And I want to emphasise here again that I am talking about a group of people—figures of one in every hundred of the general population is likely significantly underestimated—whose main disability is that the neurotypical world fails to understand or communicate with them. Recent news items about the criminalisation of autistic young people in Britain has spurred me to comment on just the kind of societal pressures that probably forced many into a life of exile in the past and is today a damning indictment on the bankrupt state of Western civilisation. The UK press has been full of headlines in recent years such as, “Seven police officers 'pinned down and handcuffed severely autistic teenage boy who jumped in swimming pool on school trip’ ” (2011); handcuffs and a spit-hood were also used on the 11 year old autistic girl who, “referred to as Child H, was detained for over 60 hours without an appropriate adult by Sussex police in 2012. She was arrested three times and was twice held overnight in police cells, without a parent, guardian or social worker present to support her”, then there was the incident of an autistic man was accused of sexual assault after hugging a girl on a college trip in 2015. “The man was handcuffed while being transported to the station and detained in a cell for six hours, despite telling officers he had Asperger’s Syndrome and showing them his autism alert card. The charges were eventually dropped and he received an out-of-court five-figure settlement.” There was also the case last year where, “Police handcuff autistic boy, 12, leaving him ‘distressed and sobbing’ after fight with brother at school.”

Here I focus in a bit more detail on three stories involving other young people criminalised simply for being autistic, the first took place in 2014, the other two in 2017:

Adam’s Story 

23-year-old Adam Nasralla was diagnosed with autism aged nine. Up until the age of 15 he managed, and was happy, in mainstream schools with additional support. Adam’s behaviour became more challenging with the onset of adolescence and by the age of 18 he was detained under the Mental Health Act. There then followed a series of disastrous admissions to specialist hospitals where staff do not seem to have had any training or understanding of autism. Adam was frequently physically restrained by as many as nine hospital staff for up to 11 hours at a time. He was also so heavily medicated that he was unable to speak. 

In 2014, during his ‘treatment’ at the private Wast Hills Hospital in Birmingham, a doctor decided to ‘remove’ Adam’s diagnosis of autism in order that hospital staff could criminalise his behaviour (claiming that he now had capacity and was therefore was criminally responsible for his behaviours). Staff then called the police to restrain Adam and when they arrived, Adam was handcuffed, placed in a spit hood, restrained with a belt, and taken into police custody where he continued to be restrained without the presence of a solicitor or appropriate adult. 

Adam’s legal team, Hodge, Jones and Allen, report on their website that ‘when Adam’s parents finally got to visit their son after his arrest, he was clearly extremely disturbed and could not stop crying. He continues to suffer trauma as a result of his arrest and police detention.’ Adam was subsequently treated in a caring environment where his diagnosis was reinstated and his medication significantly reduced. A civil law claim for negligence, assault, breach of human rights and wrongful arrest was settled out of court by both Wast Hills Hospital and West Mercia Police.

Bradley’s Story 

23 year old Bradley Grimes had been in the care system since the age of seven. When he left care with no support, aged 17, he became homeless and ended up surviving by begging and sleeping rough. Between that time and the most recent incident, Bradley has been locked up in cells countless times for breaching Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), that is, he was banned from bedding down for the night in shop doorways in Middlesborough. "I can't even sit on a public bench without being locked up. I have to keep moving. … I was in [prison] pretty much all weekend, near enough every weekend.” 

As well as being autistic, it is claimed that Bradley has an inoperable brain tumour “brought on by years of neglect”. He also suffers with epilepsy and a heart murmur. When he appeared in court last October for breaching a a four-month suspended jail sentence, he pleaded with the judge to invoke his sentence and send him to prison so that at least he could be warm and fed on his birthday. Bradley felt that jail was a better option than staying outside and continually being arrested. On the outside, “it’s impossible for me to cope on my own, because I'm bad with things like budget and money.” Something the judge clearly agreed with when he commented, "If I were to let you go today the chances are that you would be sitting on a seat or sleeping in a shop doorway and you will be locked up again.”

Marcus’ Story

Marcus Potter was diagnosed with autism aged three. Now aged 20, Marcus has an obsession with filming the police, something that has led to numerous appearances in court on charges of harassment and bail conditions being applied for repeated ‘offences’. On November 16 last year, on his way to a Job Centre appointment, on passing the Bethel Street police station in Norwich, Adam reportedly stuck two fingers up at the police. He was arrested at his home the next day for allegedly breaching bail conditions and remains in prison awaiting trial. Once again, the police are unable to distinguish between anti-social behaviour and autistic behaviour, claiming that Marcus’ behaviour represented a threat to the public and himself. 

It is hard to see what threat Marcus poses to the public, but the threat to Marcus is real: police criminalised him for being autistic and locked him up. If the following spokesperson for the National Police Autism Association can't get it right when they commented, “Having autism is not an excuse for criminal or anti-social behaviour”, then there is little hope given that the majority of police officers don't even know what autism is, or care much less if they do. In most cases autistic behaviour is NOT criminal behaviour, it is only perceived and treated as such because of ignorance. That is the stupidity in the police’s logic; repetitive and compulsive autistic behaviours, of which the individual is often unaware is offending other people, should be contextualised and understood, not criminalised. People understand Tourettes and other neurological behaviours that may be perceived as ‘odd’, why do they refuse to understand autism; and why should odd behaviour be perceived as criminal?

The actor Richard Mylanwhose BBC documentary Richard and Jaco: Life With Autism was broadcast last year—is also part of the campaign to free Marcus and was right to express concern about his 11 year old son's own preoccupation with filming in this recent BBC news item.

Watch this video also that Marcus took of himself being arrested as an illustration that, although the police clearly find Marcus' behaviour provocative, they only have themselves to blame given their over-the-top, embarrassingly heavy handed response to a close encounter of the autistic kind. One thing that seems to characterise all the police officers in Marcus' many videos of them, is a distinct lack of a sense of humour, never mind a lack of humanity. If they simply gave Marcus a friendly nod or wave and went on their way, he would soon get bored with filming them and turn his attentions elsewhere. Better still, help him find work where he could put his skills and boundless energy to good use. Note that the Police & Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) requires all other available responses to be considered before resorting to arrest!*

* PACE Code G concerns the Police's power to arrest:
  1. 1.1 "The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for police officers to discriminate against, harass or victimise any person on the grounds of the ‘protected characteristics’ of age, disability, [etc.] autism is a 'protected characteristic' under PACE

    1.2 The exercise of the power of arrest represents an obvious and significant interference with the Right to Liberty and Security under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights set out in Part I of Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998.

  2. 1.3  The use of the power must be fully justified and officers exercising the power should consider if the necessary objectives can be met by other, less intrusive means. Absence of justification for exercising the power of arrest may lead to challenges should the case proceed to court. It could also lead to civil claims against police for unlawful arrest and false imprisonment. When the power of arrest is exercised it is essential that it is exercised in a non-discriminatory and proportionate manner which is compatible with the Right to Liberty under Article 5. 
Marcus continues to be held in Norwich Prison until a hearing set for 19th January 2018. He is only allowed three visits per month and last saw his family on Christmas Eve. A petition launched, titled "Free Marcus Potter—Autism is not a criminal offence", has received 7,000 signatures to date. 

The police frequently complain in the press that pressures on NHS budgets means that, by default, they have become a frontline mental health service. But that is no excuse for behaving in the barbaric way they sometimes do. They have clear statutory and other guidelines to follow, such as the Bradley Report’s recommendations on diversion away from arrest and custody to clinical services when the person has either declared or its obvious that they are suffering some kind of mental health problem. Yet it is obvious from the stories above that even where someone produces an autism alert card or is displaying signs of distress or sensory overload, the full force of the law—restraint, arrest, detention—automatically kicks in with all of the human misery and waste of public money that results. Why do police still not bother to request an ‘Appropriate Adult’ when presented with someone who clearly has a prescribed ‘protected characteristic’? PACE requires them to do this by law but as is clear from the stories above, the police often fail in this most basic of rights. The internet is awash with safeguarding policies and guidelines, including those published by the police themselves, as well as those endorsed by the police such as the National Autistic Society’s, Autism: a guide for criminal justice professionals and Autism: a guide for police officers and staff. That 'safeguarding' as a word has now entered even the police's lexicon but the average police officer still does not have a clue what safeguarding means, never mind how to practice it, is typical of the bankrupt currency of modern rhetoricif we repeat it often enough people will believe we understand and practice it. 

Criminal justice system and statutory health & social services continue to operate in two entirely separate universes of discourse. More often than not its the first refusing to have a dialogue with the second because they are too pumped up to stop and realise that the ‘criminal’ they think they’ve been called out to restrain may actually be a victim in need of safeguarding and support—the unacceptable numbers of deaths in custody of people with a diagnosis of mental illness in the UK already testifies to this. A recent report debated in Parliament shows that suicide rates among autistic people is nine times that of the general population and puts the risks and vulnerability of being autistic in today’s world into further focus.

But to return to the case of Bradley Grimes, there was a time in the world when tramping, homelessness and begging were recognised and honourable professions, not least in the birthplace of Western civilisation, Athens. Diogenes the Cynic used to beg alms of a statue to practice the art of being refused and his prowess as a beggar philosopher even impressed Alexander the Great. Jesus of Nazareth (man or myth is not the issue here), the icon of Western civilisation and to whom, paradoxically, cathedral palaces have been and are still being erected around the globe, was a tramp and beggar par excellence. In my post The Right to Tramp, I refer to Jack Kerouac’s warnings as long ago as the 1950’s of the increasing intolerance towards people begging and sleeping rough. In an essay he wrote in the 1950s, The Vanishing American Hobo, he noted that the aggressive implementation of vagrancy laws, backed up by intensive police surveillance, including the use of helicopters, meant that ‘you cant even be alone anymore in the primitive wilderness’:

In America camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation. — Poverty is considered a virtue among the monks of civilized nations—in America you spend a night in the calaboose if youre caught short without your vagrancy change. […] They pick on lovers on the beach even. They just dont know what to do with themselves in those five thousand dollar police cars with the two-way Dick Tracy radios except pick on anything that moves in the night and in the daytime on anything that seems to be moving independently of gasoline …

Of course, unlike Diogenes and Jesus, for most people on the autistic spectrum, begging and homelessness are not lifestyle choices, they are the harsh realities those like Bradley Grimes encounter of being autistic in a non-autistic world. But if this rant about society’s neglect and abuse of autistic people sounds overly pessimistic, I’m more than happy to propose a solution: 

The Discrimination of Autism

50 years ago, homosexual behaviour in Britain was finally de-criminalised and de-pathologised, even though the open discrimination of LGBT people and medical intervention to change people’s sexual orientation continued. And while that discrimination may still exist today, there are strict penalties against those who publicly express it. In spite of the Autism Act 2009 (the Welsh Government continues to resist implementing such an Act) the criminalising and pathologising of autistic behaviour remains one of the last areas of discrimination in the UK not to be vigorously outlawed. Statutory services such as local authorities, the NHS and the police, are still able to discriminate against autistic people without challenge.

For years, mental health services were described as the ‘cinderella service’ of the NHS, receiving proportionally the least resources—and to some extent still do. But compared to dedicated autism services (only now slowly emerging on a piecemeal and tokenistic basis), mental health services are a well protected, statutory mainstream provision. The same goes for national policy and strategy documents. Autism is often only referred to briefly as an afterthought or add-on to mainstream documents written for other disability groups such as the mentally ill or people with learning disabilities—whose clinical practitioners are often woefully ignorant of autism or the risks associated with it. But autism is neither a mental illness or a learning disability, and unless co-occurring with one of those other disabilities, people with autism are excluded altogether from those more protected services. Only a revised, universal Autism Act that gives people real rights rather than merely good intentions, together with the implementation of Lord Bradley’s proposals into law (with specific reference to autism), will ensure that autistic people can no longer be denied support, discriminated against and criminalised in the manner they currently are today.

An Afterword on Homelessness:

This comment is not specifically related to autistic people but recent reports in the press describe the leader of Windsor Council making a formal request to the police to remove homeless people from the streets of the town prior to the royal wedding. The Council leader was seeking action against “aggressive begging and intimidation” and the “bags and detritus” accumulating on the streets. He suggested to the police that they use their powers under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, to criminalise rough sleeping and begging, and the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to issue ASBOs.

I’m not sure if it ever crossed the Council Leader’s mind, but I well remember news images of the young Prince Harry, whose wedding he is so anxious to sanitise, being taken by his mother to various homelessness charities of which she was a patron. Harry's brother, Prince William, remains a patron of Centrepoint today. Now of course, I suspect that, like the citizens of Hamja Ahsan’s fictitious Aspergistan, many autistic folk, homeless or not, are not that bothered about public displays of fawning at royal events. But one response to Windsor Council’s request, is that homeless people from across the Country that are so inclined and able, make their way down to Windsor en-mass for the wedding, and turn out on the streets for a couple of nights along with all the other well-wishers to celebrate the event in a style that Princess Diana would surely have approved of.

I voluntarily run a weekly writing group for the autism charity Autism Spectrum Connections Cymru that provides a drop-in, a range of support and social groups, and help and advice with employment, housing, education, etc, for over 600 adults. One of the exercises we did recently was to write a fifteen minute response to the Leader of Windsor Council. I am indebted to the following two members of the group for allowing me to publish their pieces of writing on this post. Its a pity that the subjects of Marcus Potter's videos are unable to display the same problem solving skills, irony and humour as is evident from the contributions below:

Dear Mr Dudley,

Can I suggest that in light of your stated objective of removing homeless people from the streets of your city prior the upcoming royal wedding, you also ban tourists, who have no fixed abode in the area.  How would you stop the removed homeless from returning?  Perhaps you could surround Windsor with a wall to prevent any outsiders from straying into the city.  If this proves too costly, why not just hold the celebrations inside Windsor Castle?  Perhaps you are confusing homelessness a terrible thingwith militant fundamentalisma terrorist thing.  Perhaps you could be part of the solution.  I wonder how many empty rooms there are in the Council offices, or for that matter in your own home?

[Damian Sawyer]

Dear Sir,

RE: Your request that homeless people be removed from the streets of Windsor whilst the Royal Wedding takes place.

I couldn't agree more and would like to make some suggestions as to how this might be achieved:

House all the homeless people in the large building in the centre of Windsor. It has many rooms, most of which are unused by the elderly occupants, Elizabeth and Philip.

House all the homeless people in a marquee in Elizabeth and Philip's garden. It is massive and extends to Virginia Water, some miles away. In fact, Virginia Water itself is technically part of the garden.

Dress all the homeless people as Beefeaters and pay them to act as Good Will Ambassadors—guiding tourists to the best place to eat, urinate, sleep in a doorway, etc.

As above, but dress all the homeless people as famous figures from British history. One gentleman near McDonald's has a beard and is virtually Henry VIII already.

Ask the homeless people to act as guard of honour to the happy couple—they could link their sleeping bags and cast them on the cobblestones to form a sort of multi-coloured red carpet.

Ask local people to stop washing and shaving and to sleep rough themselves during the wedding—that way any homeless people will stand out far less.

Spray the homeless with red, white and blue food dye. They will still be homeless but they will have an instant air of patriotism.

Hold the wedding itself in Slough and have the reception in Windsor—that way, Windsor will seem amazing in comparison, even with a 'homeless problem.'

Equip each homeless person with clothes covered in tiny mirrors—that way, they can better reflect the rest of society.

I'm sure any of the above strategies will do the trick.

Yours faithfully,

A fellow concerned citizen

[Jethro Bradley]

Jethro was winner of the BBC Radio New Comedy Awards 2016. 
Watch his video here

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