People with autism can end up in the prison system just like anyone else. In fact, people with learning difficulties, and with autism, are hugely over-represented in the criminal justice system.
People with Learning Disabilities and Autistic Spectrum Conditions are seven times more likely to come into contact with the Police than the general population. 15% of young people in custody are on the autistic spectrum. Young people with learning disabilities are ten times more likely to find themselves in custody than the general population and represent 30% of people in custody. 10% of the prison population has a diagnosed learning disability (that’s 8,000 people in England & Wales), and 60% of prisoners have difficulties with “communication skills”.*
Josh’s Mum sought diagnoses for her son from the age of 4 and was frustratingly unsuccessful in receiving any formal result. It is impossible to say if this lack of diagnoses had any influence on Josh’s future, but after a troubled childhood, plagued with anxiety, low self esteem, few friendships and violent outbursts, Josh found himself in prison for 4 months at the age of eighteen for breaching an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO).
Over twenty years after diagnosis was first sought, it took Josh entering the criminal justice system for assault and criminal damages, before his continued interaction with the probation service led to him being sent for assessment. Josh was seen by the probation service for most of his teenage years and young adult life. Josh was twenty-six years old when he finally received his diagnosis of Asperger’s.
His Mum, Nicola, speaks candidly about her family’s journey.
“Life with Joshua was very challenging. I felt totally isolated and that I was the only Mum ever to struggle with having a ‘naughty’ child. I was told I was a bad Mum and that Joshua was simply reacting to a difficult home life. Joshua’s father was violent and to some extent it seems as if this masked what was really going on with Josh. As his Mum, I knew there was more to it, but I could not get myself heard despite many attempts.”
From the age of four, Nicola started consulting professionals about Joshua’s behaviour. Again when Josh was eight, Nicola discussed her concerns with his SEN teacher at school. Although this led to Josh being assessed for Asperger’s, he passed the Speech and Language test, and therefore the assessment was not completed and any hope of a diagnosis at this point, was lost.
Joshua’s behaviours did not improve. He ran away from school, had violent outbursts and became increasingly isolated and emotionally removed.
“With no formal diagnosis and an invisible condition Joshua was labelled as ‘naughty’. I was labelled as a ‘bad’ Mum and I had two more children to support. Joshua had no friends, was never invited to parties, wasn’t allowed on school trips, and didn’t interact with other children. As he grew up, so the behaviours worsened. In his teenage years Josh started to self medicate with drink and drugs which only exacerbated his behaviours. His violent outbursts left me fearful for my safety and that of my other children.
“Possibly the darkest day of my life was the day Joshua went to prison for criminal damages. I also had to take out an injunction on my own son. Our situation had become intolerable. And yet, going to prison was, ironically, the start of a brighter, more positive future.
Nicola continues; “Whilst under the probation service Joshua was sent for assessment. I was over the moon that we were finally being heard. Six weeks after assessment we were sent through the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). My son was twenty-six years old. It only confirmed what I had always thought, but because it was official I felt overwhelming relief that Josh would finally get the support he so desperately needed.’
The National Autistic Society has recently launched an Autism Accreditation scheme to improve the way prisons support offenders with autism who are in custody. The Accreditation aims to improve autism practice across every area of prison life; such as admission, staff training, behaviour management and the physical environment, with the long term aim of tackling issues often faced by prisoners with autism and ultimately lowering offending rates.
Since launching the scheme over 30 prisons have expressed interest in becoming accredited.
Nicola continues; “Joshua suffers with anxiety which has stopped him doing a lot of things, such as working, socialising and coming along to family gatherings. Following his time in prison, and as a result of his time with the probation service, diagnosis finally came. Since his diagnosis, it feels as though Josh has been able to come to terms with who he is, and better understand his behaviours. I cannot believe the change in him. He is sounding bright and happy and I feel my dreams for him are starting to come true! His self esteem is growing every day and gone are the days my son thought so little of himself that he allowed himself to be used as a human dart board. He is keen to get himself a job and his own place. My hopes for Joshua are for him to be settled in his own place where he can shut the front door and enjoy his own safe and comfortable environment. Most of all I want him to be understood.”