What I Think about Autistic Criminals

In the news today was a story about a man who allegedly used malware to take over his victim’s computers and take pictures of them (particularly undressing in front of the computer, not knowing they were being watched), which he then used to blackmail his victims into providing more pictures or video.

As one can almost expect in this type of case, the man’s family has apologized and added that the man, Jared James Abrahams, was autistic.

Now, I’m autistic. I’m also a man. And I, too, know how to use computers. But that’s where the similarity ends. And I have no sympathy for Jared, if he did what he is alleged to have done (and, according to police, admitted to).

Autism doesn’t prevent us from knowing right from wrong. In fact, many autistic people have a very strong sense of right and wrong.

And, contrary to popular opinion, we can manipulate, lie, cheat, violate, and intimidate people. As Jared did. And as do many other people, both autistic and non-autistic alike.

Now, assuming Jared did this (he does have a right to a trial and innocent people have confessed before – albeit I see that as highly unlikely to be happening in this case), the problem I have is the attempt to use this diagnosis as an excuse. Autism should not mitigate sentencing or prosecution in the type of case Jared is involved in. He knew this was wrong. And he did it anyhow. Laws were written for people like him.

I also have fairly little respect for someone using computers for this purpose. It’s not “being good at computers.” Being good at computers is going and fixing the Linux IP packet scheduler so I don’t have 2 seconds of queuing on my wireless interface. If you want to impress me, go do that. But that’s a whole different kind of “good at computers” than downloading some easy-to-use hacker program and tricking your victims into installing it so you can take nudie pictures of them (hint: there are plenty of nude pictures on the internet that you don’t need to hack anything to see). If people want you to stay out of somewhere, then stay out. And, for creepy guys who violate privacy, you probably need to stay out of women’s bedrooms. This wasn’t an intellectual crime – this was a crime not very far removed from that of a rapist. There’s plenty of things of intellectual interest in computing that don’t involve violating people’s privacy or bodies.

But I do think there are areas where autistic people do deserve special treatment: we don’t win in interrogations. It’s really important that an autistic person in particular have easy and early access to legal defense. It’s easy to manipulate someone who doesn’t follow all the normal social cues. That’s why we have lawyers – to protect our rights. Even if we are guilty or a creep.

Now, I have no idea if James had access to a lawyer or not, or if he was coerced in anyway to confessing. I’ve read the complaint and it is pretty convincing (albeit I’d challenge some of the technical points, but the complaint would still stand), and it seems as even without the confession there is plenty of evidence. But I do think this – and the reporting of being a victim – are two areas where autistic people lose. The system is not designed for us.

But, if the facts show he is guilty: sentence him as you would sentence anyone else. I would say that I suspect general population prison to be inappropriate for most autistic people. But I do think we can earn prison time – but in prison, it’s important to recognize that we are vulnerable, and that prison does have a responsibility to provide safety even for creeps and criminals.

I do wish that we wouldn’t hear “he’s autistic” as often as we do when people are brought to trial. Autism doesn’t make criminals. And in fact, we’re way more likely to be victims (and that part of the justice system treats us poorly too) than most people, while we’re less likely to be criminals statistically (but, obviously, there are exceptions).  Too much popular discourse surrounding crime involves demonizing the mentally ill (of whom, autistics are popularly considered to be a part, whether or not they are also mentally ill).

I also don’t like to hear the response of some of my autistic peers: “He’s not autistic.” I don’t know if he is or isn’t, or if any given criminal is or isn’t. But I do know we can be criminal, we can manipulate, and we can do bad, bad things.

So, am I surprised that autistic criminals exist? Of course not. And I hope we see justice served in this case, whatever outcome that requires.

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