Sixty second interview with Gavin Owen
By Amy Taylor
Gavin Owen is policy and campaigns officer for adults at the National Autistic Society
Q. Last week you warned that children with autistic spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder could be at risk of being given antisocial behaviour orders because their conditions were misunderstood. How much of a problem is this?
A. People with autistic spectrum disorders can sometimes display challenging as well as obsessive and ritualistic behaviour. This behaviour, which is related to their disability, may include stereotyped movements, poor awareness of personal space, repetition of strange sounds and words, lack of flexibility of thought or becoming very upset or angry because of changes in routine. A lot of the cases we are hearing about at the moment are threats of antisocial behaviour orders. We are concerned that as the number of Asbos issued increases then it will become more of a problem. That’s one of the reasons why the National Autistic Society is part of the “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” campaign.
What do you think needs to be done to stop this happening?
The fact that there is no common definition of anti-social behaviour within the Anti-social Behaviour Act is worrying. This leaves understanding of what constitutes anti-social behaviour open to interpretation and could mean that enforcement of the legislation will be extremely inconsistent. It also means that behaviour displayed by people with autism might be interpreted as antisocial or criminal. We would like the definition to be tighter and to be based on intent rather than on the likelihood of causing alarm or distress. For the vast majority of children and people with autism, there will be no intent, which should exclude them from being drawn into a system where they would be vulnerable.
Do you think the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2004 needs to be changed to achieve this?
As the Bill was going through Parliament, the NAS lobbied for a change of definition. The current definition of anti-social behaviour is “acts in a manner that causes or is likely to cause alarm or distress”. A definition that is as broad as the one in the bill will mean that people with autism, who to the casual observer sometimes behave in bizarre ways, may be drawn in. We did receive written assurances from the Home Office “that people with autistic spectrum disorders will not be discriminated against on the grounds of their disability by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act”. However, calls to our Autism Helpline from worried parents whose children have been threatened with Asbos do not reassure us.
Does sentencing take into account whether children with these conditions are capable of adhering to the conditions of antisocial behaviour orders?
Learning from mistakes is an issue for children, young people and indeed adults with autism. Many people with autism have an inability to generalise behaviour from one context to another. If a child with autism breaks the rules in a French class this morning, they will not know that they are not meant to repeat the behaviour in a history lesson this afternoon. They can understand the rule literally at that moment in time, but they cannot generalise it to other situations. That is why the issue of learning from mistakes is crucial. It takes a great deal of support and education for a person to learn how to make connections and for them to try to generalise. An antisocial behaviour order will not in itself change the behaviour of a person with autism.
Should people with autistic spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder be exempt from Antisocial Behaviour Orders?
People with autism have social and communication impairments and therefore it is not fair to expect their behaviour to always be socially appropriate. Where it is does not cause harm, behaviour associated with the disability should not be subject to punitive measures as this could constitute discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act (1995). However, we cannot make a blanket assumption that every Asbo served against a person with autism is discriminatory, but what we do want is a person’s disability to be taken into consideration when issuing the Asbo – is that the most appropriate course of action? Would an Asbo improve the situation? Would the person benefit from an Acceptable Behaviour Contract? Is the anti-social behaviour because a lack of support? Behavioural problems often develop because the child and the family’s support needs are not being met. Support needs should therefore be reviewed as part of an assessment in order to investigate the underlying cause of any behavioural problems.
The Home Office has admitted that they do not collect statistics on the number of people with learning difficulties who are given anti social behaviour orders. Do you think this needs to happen?
I do think t it needs to happen. If there were statistics then the Home Office would be able to either allay our fears or if we’re right, we have the evidence to go to the Home Office and state that people with autism are being served with Asbos despite their disability. The reasons and circumstances of the Asbos could then be investigated.
The Youth Justice Board is due to publish guidance for youth offending teams on anti social behaviour orders next month which will highlight the need for the assessment of people with learning difficulties. Have you been asked to feed into this and do you think that this is enough?
The NAS has been in contact with the Youth Justice Board regarding the guidance. We want to make sure youth offending teams have access to information about autism and specialist advice, so that they can work more effectively with people with autism. We hope the Youth Justice Board and Yots will effectively use the information we have provided.
We would also encourage professionals to contact us for advice and information on 0845 070 4004. The NAS is also working to increase autism awareness among professionals in the criminal justice system in 2005 as part of its professional awareness raising campaign. For more information visit www.autism.org.uk/cjp