April is Autism Awareness Month

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On November 21, 2021, a 19-year-old man detained locally in Harris County, Texas, died from injuries sustained by another inmate. The teen was only half the size of his alleged attacker and was diagnosed with special needs. Unsurprisingly, young adults with special needs have higher interactions with the criminal justice system, and some of these individuals are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

When many think of autism, it conjures images of the movie Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman plays a man on the spectrum with an incredible gift in math. Individuals on the spectrum, however, possess talents and challenges as varied as the residents who live in Texas. Nationally, nearly one in 55 boys will be diagnosed with ASD. And as a result of what some say is outdated diagnostics, girls are also routinely underdiagnosed with ASD and therefore, may be underserved until later in life. Hence, it is incumbent upon professionals to familiarize themselves with autism to better serve and treat those who encounter the criminal justice system.

ASD is an umbrella term for a complex neurological condition where an individual has deficits in communication, social interaction, and behavior. Only about 40 percent of individuals with autism also have a cognitive impairment. A person need not have all the symptoms to qualify for a diagnosis, but some of the significant features of persons with ASD include:

  • Language deficits
  • Repetitive/self-stimulating behavior
  • Emotional deficits
  • Irresponsive behavior
  • Social deficits
  • Lack of boundaries
  • Inflexible behavior
  • Obsessive Interests
  • Sensory sensitivities

For youth and young adults on the spectrum, 5% of males will be arrested by the age of 21. There are no official statistics on the number of persons with autism who are presently incarcerated. An older study did find that the number of incarcerated persons with autism double that of the general population. Further, a young person on the spectrum with a co-occurring mental health diagnosis increases criminal justice involvement, while higher family income and family support act as protective factors from future involvement.

Criminal justice professionals can act as advocates by ensuring youth have access to ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA is the gold standard for treating persons with autism. ABA is behavior reinforcement and redirection based on the principles of operant conditioning. While time-consuming and expensive, it is also the best form of treatment. The good news is the Texas legislature recently approved Medicaid funding to cover ABA treatment for autism. On February 1, 2022, Texas Medicaid commenced coverage for ABA and had providers ready to accept clients.

Law enforcement locally and programs that exist nationally recognize the need for specialized training for those working in criminal justice agencies that interact with persons with autism. Houston Police Department provides comprehensive training to its law enforcement officers on autism and how those persons could respond differently than others to law enforcement interaction. Nationally, there is a specialty court in Las Vegas, NV, home to the country’s only Autism Court or D.A.A.Y, which stands for Detention Alternatives for Autistic Youth. This court assists families with children that are diagnosed or suspected of diagnosis with obtaining ABA services with the goal of dismissal once services are implemented.

A news story regarding autism court can be viewed here.

Providing targeted and specific services to persons with autism and other persons with special needs will increase community safety while decreasing reliance on incarceration and other more costly measures. Intervention with appropriate services, like ABA treatment, is a step in the right direction to ensure that the residents of Harris County receive what they need to reach their potential.