I take a lot of pride in representing some of the most marginalized people in society. One area of specialty has been dealing with the truly mentally ill (not what segments of our society like to label to rationalize the actions they take) and developmentally disabled folks. Autism falls into the latter To that extent, I have had my share of clients who fall on the spectrum and do not get that diagnosis until they are adults. The Detroit Free Press just did an article yesterday on the subject https://www.freep.com/story/news/education/2023/05/08/adult-autism-diagnosis-michigan/70169698007/
One of the God sends of the diagnosis is, for the first time, is getting an answer to things. And also a clear path of how to cope.
From my first meeting with A.H. I knew I was dealing with an autistic adult. His mannerisms, lack of eye contact, clenching of his hands, etc. He was charged with domestic violence and the so-called victim was a “family” member. That family member preyed upon A.H.’s idiosyncrasies and pushed him too far. A.H. reacted with some assaultive behavior. Not atypical of people on the spectrum. As an aside, A.H. had some other interactions with the law and frankly, his previous lawyers should have known they were dealing with someone who was “off.”
I informed A.H. that he needed to be tested for autism. Many doctors will not test adults because the syndrome is best detected in childhood. But as the above Freep article provides, that is changing.
Dealing with A.H., was the product of my trying to educate myself on autism as it intersects the criminal law. I read lots of journal articles in the field where law and psychology intersect. I learned, for example, autistic individuals when interviewed by the police, will agree with the accusations and even make statements in support. It is called accommodation. They want to please their inquirer and not upset him or her. Hence rendering a false confession. Some studies show that they process information differently and will adapt in a way to compensate
There can be a large degree of substance abuse as autistic individuals get older. It is to deal with the discomfort of being in society or social settings. So a DUI charge or possession is not unheard of.
In A.H.’s case, the diagnosis came back as suspected autism. Based on that, after a lengthy email outlining how autism would explain my client’s behavior and his statements, I was able to prevail upon the city attorney to reduce the charge to disturbing the peace with a delayed sentence. Upon completion of the period, the case would be dismissed. The judge that took the plea, referred my client to the wellness and behavior court. A voluntary program, which allowed treatment monitoring and medication compliance. Many autistic individuals take medications to deal with the mood disorders and anxieties that come with the disorder.
We returned to court today. I was not surprised that the evaluator was able to find criteria to have my client be placed in this program. The difficulty is that autism, while it may have symptoms that appear to be akin to mental health issues, it is not a mental illness under the Michigan Mental Health Code. So I advised the judge that it was basically a non-starter for us to put him in their program because he does not have a mental illness. Trust me, I wish it was. It would allow me to have a statutory defense for my cases. I had a developmentally disabled individual go to prison because DD is not in the Code and I could not even bring before the jury that my client processes information differently than others. Getting back to A.H., he consented to the program. Of course, he did, because he is an accommodator. A.H. is also able to work a job (many DDs and autistic people do. Autistic individuals tend to work alone and many employers make accommodations for them. A. H. is intelligent and an asset to his employer) and told the court he was anguished when he had to leave work to deal with probation or go to testing while the case was pending. It pended, in part, for a long time because we had to find the right assessor to diagnose his condition
The outcome was awesome. A.H. came to court and, sadly, his autism was on full display. He had to excuse himself from the court because of the anxiety We got through it. The judge, probation and I met separately. She specifically made of finding he was of no harm to himself or others She ultimately decided he was treated in the community and did not need this specialty court. Fines and costs, case over.
I had my first exposure to mentally ill individuals when I worked as a court reporter, doing MH hearings, back in Maryland in the mid 8os. I handled this docket as a young lawyer at the beginning of my career. I feel we, who are in the criminal justice system, have to be educated on these cases. When it comes to dealing with folks with developmental disabilities we have to know their characteristic, how they might impact a case, and explain behaviors that may look criminal in nature but are not. We must prevent the police, the prosecutor, or the bench from trying to characterize them as mental health cases, even if the temptation is there. This is not a place for us to cut corners to just get the case over with. Sorry, not sorry. Great outcomes can be achieved.
Today was another day, in many, where my mission on why I became a lawyer was validated. This is not about me. My client had an individualized outcome. He has gotten better treatment to address his issues and justice was served.