Criminal justice and Autism – A personal reflection

Today a friend and advocate colleague asked me for a quote on how Autism – and attitudes surrounding it – contributed to me being involved in criminal acts when I was younger. This is what I gave her:

“As a young woman I was very naive. I didn’t yet have my Asperger’s diagnosis and was desperate to be accepted. I was targeted by a criminal ‘boyfriend and committed crimes to gain his approval. I went to prison I became a social chameleon in order to survive. I was such a convincing social ‘actor’ that I identified with being a criminal so spent the next few years in and out of prisons. More understanding about Autism – and a timely diagnosis – may have kept me out of prison and spared me and the victims of my crimes from a lot of misery. I m doing well in life now but five years of my life were lost.”

These days I might be the least criminal person in the country. I pride myself on my ethics and community involvement, in my volunteer work and my will to make the world a kinder and more inclusive place. I have not committed a crime since 1999. But between 1994 and 1999 I committed plenty of them. I don’t often talk about this. I find it shameful and I hate to be defined by it but being asked for my thoughts on the topic made me realise other people are currently in the same sort of situation I was and their parents, kids and others who love them are most likely going through the kind of misery and anguish my parents did.

I will preface this piece by saying I do not condone crime or acts of violence. I do not make excuses for my own behaviour. While there were extenuating factors, I also had a choice. The notion of personal responsibility applied to me and other Autistic people as it does to others. However there are elements of Autistic experience which can push people in the direction of criminal acts and these people – like twenty-something me – do need assistance, love and support like any other people.

1994 I am  a twenty year old socialist. I have been living independently for three years. I experienced bullying as a child and teen, as well as sexual and other violence on many occasions. I had very few friends and was desperate to be loved and appreciated. I met a man  through the socialists who was really nice to me and we became very close. I thought he was ‘naughty’ as I saw him spraying graffiti and doing things like that. He was confident and interesting and said things I thought validated me. He told me about some other things he wanted to do – more serious crimes. At that point I know it was wrong and I didn’t want to do it. But I also knew that if I did it I would gain the man’s approval and the way he talked about crime, nobody would be scared or in danger. He made it sound like going to work. I was conflicted. He started talking about very scary things. I wanted to leave him but I knew all his plans. I really believed if I don’t go along with him I would be killed.

1994. My mum is driving home from work and hears a news item about a criminal man and his partner, a Jeanette Purkis of Richmond in Melbourne having been arrested for a robbery. This was in the days before the world wide web and mobile phones so it was hard for my parents to work out what was going on. They drove to Melbourne and stayed with my mum’s relatives. My mum’s step-grandma  – a wealthy lady who lived in a ‘nice’, leafy suburb, said to my mum ‘If it was my daughter I would move to Peru!’ My mum now says she thinks the relative was serious.

My parents suddenly got thrown into the world of crime and prison. My parents are kind of Aspie themselves – my mum now diagnosed as being on the spectrum and my dad sitting somewhere in hid own  ‘quirky’ space. They didn’t know where to turn to for assistance or support and spent much of the time I was involved in crime feeling left out from Autism parent groups etc. If you meet a parent of someone who is in jail, remember that the people who love the offender didn’t commit a crime themselves and may be really struggling.

1995 I was released from prison but I was so damaged by the experience that I self-medicated with drugs. Getting and using drugs was my passion in the same way that Autism advocacy is my passion now. This was Not Good.  My lovely parents had funded sessions with a psychologist specialising in women and girls on the Autism spectrum but  was oppositional about the diagnosis and high most of the time so I stopped going. My next meeting with psychology and psychiatry was was an impatient in psychiatric ward where I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I do not know how much my anxiety and drug use contributed to me becoming unwell but I do know that Autistic people can be more susceptible to drug related issues. I have now been taking anti-psychotic medication for 22 years. It seems I will need to for the rest of my life and I definitely have a mental illness in need of treatment.

Autistic people can be more impacted by various substances including alcohol and prescription drugs as well as illicit drugs. I’m not sure what the solution/s is to this but I do know that drug and alcohol dependence are not something someone wakes up and decides to do. Addictions seem to happen where there is trauma or something important missing for a person. So that would suggest the solution starts before the ‘don’t do drugs. m’kay!’ talk at school but actually goes to supporting children and young people to live a life whey they are supported and kept away form trauma and invalidation. (OK, I know that’s really hard in this world of ours but a good goal to work towards).

1999 I have been in prison on and off for years, I have nothing – my possessions are letters an cards from family and some not very good drawings I’ve done. I am incredibly unwell with my mental illness and have been given huge doses of an older anti-psychotic drug called Largactyl. I have been self harming in some pretty severe ways for years. I should have died many, many times. To say that I didn’t like myself is an understatement. I asked one of the nurses in the prison if they still did lobotomies as I thought that would be better than inhaling the hell that was my minds the life I had somehow made for myself. I had lost my identity – social chameleon and acting is good for an Autistic’s survival in prison but because it is so necessary and urgent to be convincing it can come at the cost of  person’s identity – it did for me.

However a few months after that I was a free woman, exiting the prison gates for the last time in February 2000. Six weeks before I was supposed to be released, I was planning to continue my recidivist existence as, while I hated it, it was what I knew. Then I had an argument with the scariest person in prison. I was already in what was known as the ‘management unit’ due to my acting out and aggression so there was nowhere else for me to go. In the name of my safety the officers left me in my cell which – had around the same surface area as my bathroom in Whimsy Manor – for 23 1/2 hours a day. I got to walk around the yard by myself for half an hour a day. The only contact I had with people was the nurses dispensing my medication which took less than a minute. I think I had a visit or two but that was it. Anyone who knows me well knows I am extroverted and love talking and sharing ideas with people. This awful solitude for six weeks got me thinking. I thought if I committed another crime then I would be by myself for as long as my sentence. It could be for six months! My life as an institutionalised recidivist was not something I wanted any more. I was propelled from my negative world by a negation. Of course I did a lot of work to became the me I am now than just not wanting to be in prison, but it does illustrate that some Autistic people are very practical and logical – as am I. So while there was an ethical imperative to not commit crimes and victimise people, that was not the first point on my journey to being as free as I am now.

I’m not sure if this is helpful to you but it is quite a cathartic thing to wrote. I have better go and cuddle Mr Kitty and reflect on how my life is amazing.

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2 thoughts on “Criminal justice and Autism – A personal reflection

  1. I know what it’s like to be autistic in jail. Except I took the other route – isolating myself as much as possible because I very much know my identity and refuse to be a chameleon to fit in with anyone even when it might be the better path to take. It led to extreme bullying and and an assault I needed to protect myself from (defend myself or be seriously injured or killed).

    For me, being there on remand, innocent of the crime I was charged with, (in the end pleading guilty because of threats the real perpetrators made against my one year child because pleading guilty meant “time served” would mean not going back to jail), meant I was adamant I would not be anything like the people surrounding me.

    But I don’t know how to move on from it. Being the innocent victim while the perpetrators got away with it – pretending they were the victims and pretending I was the perpetrator – because I couldn’t fight it due to the threats against my baby. Targeted in the first place because I was “weird and different”, because I was undiagnosed at the time.

    It’s why I think diagnosis of girls and women is so important – girls and women who aren’t diagnosed make for easy targets – whether in your case Jeanette for criminal “boyfriends” who drag girls and women into their crimes, or for abusers, whether that be partners, in my case so called health “professionals”, or anyone who targets those who are vulnerable.

    Because even though autism is NOT a “disorder” no matter what some people want to classify it as, and it is not innately a “disability”, in our current society, any form of “difference” is disabling and sadly neurodiversity becomes a disability because one of the things that is both good and bad with being autistic is that assumption of honesty – our ability to be honest regardless of the cost, and the belief that others are just as honest as we are. If the whole world was like that, it would be a better a place, but when we are in the minority, it means we are easily sucked in by less honest people. And that makes us extremely vulnerable.

    I know I have been conned time and time again by less than honest people, and been victimised over and over because I am blind to people’s true nature until after I’ve already been abused, but the funny thing is, I still wouldn’t get rid of my autism, and I would still choose to see the best in people and still choose to give people the benefit of the doubt while there is doubt.

    Despite it having led to much abuse, I still choose to have hope and to see the best in people.

    I just wish I could take away my pain about the abuse that I went through, being sent to jail on remand for a crime I was the real victim of.

    Like

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