I am not a U.S. resident, so this legislation would not apply to me. However, for those who do reside in the U.S., the Community Choice Act is important in enabling people with disabilities and older people to stay in the community rather than having to go to nursing homes and institutions. You can sign the petition to include the CCA in Obama’s comprehensive healthcare reform package here.
Archive for April, 2009
Dr. Brown of ABA4Autism discusses autism as insanity defense. His point is that it is a good thing that autism is rarely accepted as an insanity defense, because he “doesn’t want autism to get a bad name”. As much as I agree to the idea that autism by itself does not cause someone to commit a crime without knowing it’s wrong, and that it would be a prejudice to think it does, I still don’t believe that autism by definition can never be an insanity defense.
What I assume Dr. Brown wants to clarify, is that autistics are not significantly more likely than neurotypicals to commit violent crimes and that autism’s features do not turn people into criminals, unless you believe nonsensical theories like the autistics-as-sexual-predators Facebook stupidity a few months ago. Of course, problems with theory of mind or distress tolerance, which many autistics do have, do not lead to violence in the vast majority of cases, and I’m pretty sure that in situations where an autistic commits a crime, it still doesn’t automatically say that “autism made him do it”.
However, the vast majority of schizophrenics, bipolars and people with mental retardation do not commit violent crimes, either, and just because a murderer happens to be schizophrenic, for example, doesn’t mean his schizophrenia made him do it. Schizophrenia is a common insanity defense, but not every murderer with schizophrenia will get it. Clark v. Arizona is a fairly recent (2007 I think) Supreme Court case that signifies this. “Insanity”, at leasst in the United States, just isn’t defined by your DSM-IV classification, but by whether you could’ve known that your act was wrong. In the Netherlands, where “insanity” is not defined by McNaughton or any similar principle, autism is in fact a common insanity defense, because here “insanity” just means that your mental disorder had a significant impact on your crime, and no-one really knows how this judgment is made. I’d be not at all surprised if a diagnosis of mental illness or developmental disability would almost be sufficient for an insanity defense – I know only one example of someone whom the assessing Pieter Baan Center diagnosed with a personality disorder but whom they still declared sane.
This one example is Volkert van der G., who killed Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002. The Pieter Baan Centre, which is our country’s diagnostic center for judicial purposes, assessed him and diagnosed him with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (not obsessive-compulsive disorder!), but the evaluators claimed that this disorder had not significantly influenced his crime. He was sentenced to eighteen years in jail in 2003.
But Van der G.’s case is not connected to insanity defenses only because of this – in fact, I think most people who know that he was evaluated for insanity, don’t know that he was actually diagnosed with anything -, but also because he was at one point labeled with Asperger’s. This “diagnosis” was not given by anyone who had examined him, but by a child psychiatrist who specializes in autism spectrum disorders, who based his conclusion on what he’d heard about Van der G. in the media. This controversy, that died after the Pieter Baan Center claimed not to have had to assess him for this “because he has a sense of humor”, sparked a lot of discussion in the Dutch autistic community. Most disagreed to the idea that an autism diagnosis would or should by definition have led to a declaration of insanity. Many also worried for their image, since what if the person who murdered a popular politician had the same disorder as I or my child? And what if he did get declared insane because of this, and everyone believed that autism caused him to murder Pim Fortuyn? I can understand the sentiment, but even if Van der G. had had Asperger’s, and even if he’d been declared insane on that basis, it doesn’t mean that everyone with Asperger’s is a potential murderer. By the way, in this particular case, it would’ve been extremely strange if one’d believed that a mental disorder triggered this crime, given the circumstances of the killing and Van der G.’s own statements about it, so I’m glad for this reason that he wasn’t declared insane.
However, could there be reasons for someone with autism or Asperger’s who’d committed a violent crime to be legitimately declared insane? I am not sure how strictly the Anglo-Saxon McNaughton test is applied, so I can’t speak for the United States. In the Netherlands, however, there have been quite a few cases of insanity defenses for an autism spectrum disorder. One example I heard of a few years ago involved a man who tried to set his own house on fire in a severe crisis, without any intention of harming anyone – his action was an ultimate call for help. His diagnosis, made after his crime, was some form of autism and he was sent to a state hospital due to insanity. Even though a serious crisis did not turn me into a criminal and I don’t think it ever would, I can imagine that autistic features could’ve played a role in this case. That is not saying that these same autistic features – difficulty understanding the consequences of one’s actions, for example, or seriously impaired communication skills – make every autistic, or even the majority, a potential arsonist. It is also not saying that autistics, or those with mental disabilities in general, are the only ones who can commit crimes that are influenced by the same motives – as with the sexual predators thing, neurotypicals could end up in the same situation, too. What it is saying, is that in some cases, when an autistic commits a crime, that person’s actions are significantly influenced by his autistic impairments. This is actually the same as when someone with another mental disability, that is generally accepted as an insanity defense in the U.S., commits a crime: not nearly the majority of mentally disabled people are criminals, and there are non-disabled people who commit crimes for reasons often cited when someone with mental illness is involved, but that doesn’t mean mental deficits cannot have influenced a crime. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about one’s labels, after all.