Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Unexpected Lessons

I was recently asked my opinion about the case of a Dutchman with autism who had received a jail sentence after publishing fairly vile and rude Twitter messages about the Queen of the Netherlands. I'll call him the Twitter guy.

The more I looked into this story, the more I realised the intricacies of the case. You see, Twitter guy had already received two official warnings for sending threat letters to the Prime Minister and another event and was therefore on probation.
His four month prison sentence was based on all of these events and also took his autism diagnosis into account; otherwise he would have received a longer sentence according to a judge.

A few weeks later I heard the news that Gary McKinnon was not to be extradited to the USA because of hacking into 97 military and NASA computers causing over $700,000 of damage. This decision took the government 10 years to make. 10 years of waiting. 10 years of his life on hold. 10 years of fear of being 'fried', as some clever soul in the American press wrote.
Again, the diagnosis of autism had been taken into account. Mr. McKinnon has always acknowledged that what he did was technically against the law, though possibly in his mind, the means justified the end. He does acknowledge that he will be punished.

If I were the US government I would be employing Mr.McKinnon to find all the loopholes in their supposedly 'secure' firewall systems! He has proved that they are there and that he can find them. But then that would be out of the box thinking. Unfortunately something that is not that common in government.

A week after this news, a poignant and emotional documentary aired on Dutch television called 'The Rules of Matthijs'. A filmmaker and best friend of Matthijs filmed him during the breakdown of the world around him after loosing his house which resulted in his consequent suicide.

Unfortunately the documentary is in Dutch and has, as of yet, not been translated into English. Keep your eye out for it in the future as I'm sure this will happen due to the many awards it has so far received.
The judge who decided he was to lose his house said something that chilled me to the bone,’ you are hiding behind your autism.'

That a judge can say this in this day and age shocks me. Yet maybe I shouldn't be so shocked?
This sentence fits in with so many questions I'm often asked, such as 'but you don't look autistic', or 'what problems do you have then, I don't see any.'

Notice that these are more statements than questions. I truly don't mind if someone asks me how my autism works or what the advantages and disadvantages are.
Stating that I don't “look” autistic and then waiting for my response, means I actually have to defend myself. Something that I have vowed not to do.

Explain? Yes. Defend? Never.

Now what do these three cases have in common?
Obviously the diagnosis of autism is the connecting factor, and the fact that they have all had associations with the legal system.
Twitter guy was out of work, depressed and got drunk when he did the things he did.
Gary McKinnon only received a diagnosis after a viewer saw a TV interview in 2008 and contacted his lawyers saying he should get checked out. After 6 years of legal proceedings, he received an official diagnosis compounded by clinical depression.
Matthijs took his own life because the world as he knew it did not exist anymore. Depression was also a part of his reality for which he took medication.

As I'm writing, I'm starting to feel quite uncomfortable.
(And yes, I am going old school and am using a simple pen and paper! My local bookstore/café has decided to ban all laptops, see text:

'Nope, no WiFi. This is a place for talking and drinking coffee. Please leave your laptops in your bag and take a break. Say hi to your neighbour. Emails can wait'
Auti-friendly or what? I did state the fact that there was no other customers and therefore had no neighbours to talk to; to which the owner replied,'what about your dog?' He has a good sense of humour. I might have a chihuahua, but I am not one of those freaky people that have monologues with their dogs! :-) Pen and paper it is then!  )

But back to feeling uncomfortable. Why is this feeling bubbling under the surface?

A lawyer will use anything that will help his or her client. A diagnosis of autism apparently seems to encourage the use of diminished responsibility.
This raises questions in my mind. Should a person with autism be seen as different and therefore be judged less severely having committed a crime?

I argue in my lectures that people with autism should indeed be viewed as different but not less that someone without autism. However, I also do argue that everyone should be seen as different.
There is no 'normal'. That is, in my opinion, an illusion people create to feel safe.
There are however accepted behaviours and rules that the majority have to abide by.

So if I agree that people with autism should be judged differently, what then makes me feel so uneasy?
I think it is because I see the next logical step. Let's take a hypothetical situation.

Say there's a woman who has no official diagnosis but knows she has autism. Her life is perfectly organised and she is fully in control. She does not need to acknowledge her autism, because in her opinion she doesn't experience any problems related to it. After all, if someone is totally independent, can design their life to the tiniest detail, is self employed and has a supportive family, why would they need a diagnosis?

But then she becomes involved with the legal system and her lawyers tell her it would be to her advantage to have a formal diagnosis. She follows their advice and does so.

A step further has been taken. The person has effectively used their diagnosis to their advantage. Whether this did effect her behaviour or not, the important concept is that the person does not believe this. Fortunately I have not heard of this happening in reality, but it seems only a matter of time.
I see a dangerous parallel to daily life. I will never use autism as an excuse for not having done something, or for having done something for that matter.

It can be a reason, but never an excuse.

Why you may be asking?
Because this opens up a massive squirming can of worms. If someone with autism manipulates their surroundings and uses it as an excuse, you set a precedent for how the surrounding will judge the next person with autism that comes along.

Maybe that next person has not got the ability to verbalise their thought processes and so they are judged unfairly. Or as the judge in the case of Matthijs said, they will be seen as 'hiding behind their autism.'
None of us can afford to encourage this way of thinking as it is
not only for our own good, but for the good of the next generation of people with autism.

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