The Lost Boys of the Criminal Justice System

This blog originally appeared as a Twitter thread by Mary Aspinall-Miles, a barrister at 12CP. We have reproduced here with the author’s kind permission. Some edits have been made for typos and readability – a link to the original thread is provided at the end of the article.

So let me tell you a story about the Lost Boys of the Criminal Justice System. There are girls too but they are even harder to see because of – well – everyday sexism in the diagnosis of autism.

Autism Awareness Month is meaningless unless we actually start to accept and understand autistics as they are.

(Warning: I apologise in advance if I use inadvertently ableist language or non first person autistic terms. I am not autistic but I try and fail.)

Let me choose Peter as my generic example. He’s no more real than the original Lost Boy, Peter Pan, but just as lost.

Peter is now 19. And when I first meet him, he looks so young and small even in the tiny cell at court. But his solicitors have already sent me his life story.

That’s because they have been representing him since he was 12. It was his kindly solicitor – let’s call her Wendy – who spots that something isn’t ‘right’. She has seen him fidget and stare into space oblivious to the apparent havoc he has wrought. So she gets a report.

Why not his parents, you ask? Well they tried and tried when he was in primary school, but the teachers just said he was naughty. They begged for a referral but were told again and again, “He’ll grow out of it.” At best they get a vague mention of ADHD.

Eventually, after a bit of wrangling with the legal aid people, Wendy gets Dr Bhatt, a psychiatrist to see Peter. Dr B writes her report – the ‘A word’ is mentioned. But that is it. Peter gets little to no support. The school may try to help, but they can’t as SEN budgets are gone.

Peter hits puberty. A hotbed of zits, bum fluff over the top lip and terrible hair. And, [whispers] sexy time. But Peter still likes Minecraft and Pokemon. He sleeps with his teddy at night because Ted never lets him down.

He is desperate to be like the other kids. To fit in. His mum has bought him a mobile phone. Uh oh. Can you tell where this is going?

The other kids are sharing pics of nudie ladies. They show him. A switch goes ping. He wants to find some too.

Peter, with that searing intensity of some autistics, trawls the internet to look. He falls down the rabbit hole. Because social skills and sexuality aren’t his strong point, he doesn’t understand the rules – he looks at images of girls his own age. Then he files them.

He shows them to some ‘lads’ at school as he wants to impress, and is instead met with utter horror. One tells a teacher, then they go home and their parents call the police because they don’t want their precious children exposed to that by that weirdo.

The police take Peter’s phone – he is interviewed and doesn’t get why he is in such trouble, they are just images he has collected. They aren’t real. You can’t touch them. The police see this as calculating and manipulative.

Of course he has horrible images and gets charged. His parents decide to wash their hands of him. And place him into local authority care voluntarily. They cannot cope.

Peter is ripped away from his home. The only people he loves and who understand him. What message is Peter hearing, do we think?

“We are rejecting you, you are defective. We do not love you enough. We are giving up on you.”

(That is a paraphrase/mashup of what I have actually been told by the Peters I have represented.)

His social worker, Jack, tries really hard but they funding runs out or Peter acts up. It never ceases to disappoint how many say they understand autism until they deal with a person in real life who won’t comply/conform to their rules. They never get that autism can affect social skills.

So Peter becomes a piece of luggage passed from one foster carer to a home, to another foster carer to a specialist placement, ad nauseam until he gets kicked out because he is ‘defiant and aggressive’. It never occurs to anyone that Peter needs order and rules.

He becomes increasingly detached because there is no one certain place or person. But he knows that when he is on the internet, all is OK and safe. Maybe if he could look at some girls… Yes this is where we go. He is arrested and pleads guilty. He is now a Registered Sex Offender.

Now virtually nowhere will have him to stay, and worse still his Sexual Harm Prevention Order – which he doesn’t really understand – says he has to tell everyone what he has been convicted of. It’s hard enough to be autistic and negotiate the world, but this too…

Peter has no qualifications. His social worker is desperate to find him somewhere, but can’t. Probation want to give him support via a community order, but can’t as he has nowhere to live. He is homeless. The magistrates remand him into custody. He has no money, no job, nowhere to live and no family.

He will have to present himself at the housing office at the local authority to get a room in a bedsit. The boy who is now 19 and still sleeps with Ted.

Do we think he will, or will he end up homeless? It’s estimated that 25% of rough sleepers may be on the autism spectrum.

And then what? Ah yes, Jay wanders into his life and tells him if he smokes this cigarette, all his pain will go away. It does. It so does. But heroin will do that for you. And now Peter falls down a deeper, darker rabbit hole. And then he turns 21, and guess what?

Peter is now all alone in the world. Lost and falling fast. In and out of magistrates’ court he goes. The police and magistrates are disdainful of him because – and here is the irony – he is seemingly articulate and intelligent. Wendy still represents him at court, and she knows he doesn’t understand.

I represent him because Wendy knows I try to understand this defiant, difficult and angry young man. Mainly it’s because I’ve heard this:

“No-one listens to me. They say they do but they don’t. I find the world confusing. No one helps me to learn to understand – will you?”

Then I usually hear the words that break my heart. The ones that make my tears come in the ladies’ loo at court.

“I miss my Mum.”

There is no end to this story. We need to fund support and help for austism at the earliest stage.

But most of all, we need to listen. ∎