More often than you might think, people with autism are placed in courtroom settings with little chance of fairness, equity or equal protection. Usually, they’ve been victimized in one way or another only to find themselves in court being victimized again. The experience is terrifying and traumatic.
Take the case of Mike, a young man with high functioning, mild autism who while driving his car was hit in the rear by a speeding drunk driver. Injured severely, his recovery was not complete. His family hired a lawyer to sue the drunk driver. When called to testify, the opposing counsel blamed the accident on Mike’s autism and said that he was incapable of being aware of his surroundings, and should never have been licensed to drive.
Hearing that accusation was for Mike equivalent to being stabbed with a knife. He feared losing his license and with it—his freedom. The moment that statement was uttered was a memory Mike can never escape and it will plague him all the days of his life.
Despite all evidence showing Mike was a safe driver had a sterling driving record, and contrarily that the drunk driver had been arrested three times in the past for DUI, the jury only awarded Mike a small sum, believing that his autism was a contributing factor. Pretrial, the defense attorney objected to Mike’s attorney’s motion to enter the diagnosis of Mike’s autism, describing his place on the spectrum. The pressure placed on Mike during all the pre-trial activity stressed him to extremes, causing him to fear the loss of his job, or drive anymore. His emotions, already strained by the injuries from the accident, and the months of legal activity mounted to a point of fear at being out on the road. His life was altered forever, and mostly because he wasn’t given the fairness anyone in our courts deserves.
If Mike had been blind, deaf, or missing a limb, it would have been impossible to hide his condition from the jury. Yet the fact that Mike was not disabled to a readily visible degree, his condition was hidden from the jury. His condition was not a matter of sympathy, but of understanding, for autism is part of his persona. It affects his manner of speech and means of communication, as well as his understanding in a court of law. A jury must be aware that someone they’re listening to in response to questions has a learning difficulty.
Juries, judges, and attorneys should be prepared at any time to deal with, understand and be made aware of a person’s autism. Particularly as autism is on the increase, with one in 50 children born in 2012 showing signs of it.
Mike’s injuries from the accident are minor in comparison to the emotional strain, stress, and harm created by the obvious bigotry shown to him as an autistic man in the court, and the prejudice of the system against him. The amount of money awarded by the jury did not consider his condition, or that it would take special counseling to help him regain normalcy in his life. As a result of the decision, Mike’s life will be adversely altered to his dying days which is grossly unfair.
Let’s get our courts to understand autism, to accept those who are autistic, and to embrace them as equals, while still fostering understanding and some care for their condition. This calls for education of attorneys, as well as resources and advocacy for any autistic citizen in any court. Let’s get started!