Autism and juvenile justice

Laurie Drapela’s book examines how autism research can improve juvenile justice policies in the United States and Canada.

Laurie Drapela has been studying inequities in the justice system for more than 20 years. Drapela, an associate professor of criminal justice at WSU Vancouver, has long been interested in the outcomes for juveniles after they are incarcerated. She is troubled by how society often resorts to punishment in a correctional institution rather than offering therapeutic interventions that could help the child grow up to become a happy and productive member of society.

Associate Professor Laurie Drapela

Young people with autism are at particular risk of getting caught up in the juvenile justice system. Drapela, who has a child with autism, asks: “What happens if my child, who can be  talkative and have a little bit of attitude, has an encounter with a police officer and doesn’t understand what’s at stake?” Unfortunately, it is all too likely that the police officer doesn’t understand either.

To examine the issue, Drapela has co-authored a book, “Law and Neurodiversity: Youth with Autism and the Juvenile Justice Systems in Canada and the United States,” published by the University of British Columbia Press. Her co-authors are Dana Lee Baker of California State University (formerly at WSU Vancouver) and Whitney Littlefield, a juvenile probation counselor at the Cowlitz County Youth Services Center in Longview, Wash. 

One in 54 persons in the U.S. population is on the autism spectrum. “If you’re a juvenile probation counselor with a rotating caseload of 40 to 50 kids, you’re likely to encounter at least one kid with autism over the course of a work year,” Drapela said. Many will not be detained and will be diverted back into society, but others, especially repeat offenders, may well end up in juvenile prison (known as detention). People of color with autism are particularly vulnerable to misunderstandings and harsh penalties.

Drapela’s Book Cover

The authors decided to study the Canadian and U.S. systems because they have a comparable prevalence of autism (Canada’s is 1 in 66) and a common history in English common law, but decidedly different ways of engaging juvenile offenders. Canada is more likely to implement social programs for youth with autism and connect them with the community and social service agencies. The United States is more likely to take a punitive approach.

“The U.S. still uses confinement more than anyone else in the developed world,” Drapela said. “What do people working with these kids know about autism?” 

The book argues that they need to know much more than they do now. “We make some recommendations for policies that will be driven exclusively by restorative justice,” Drapela said. “People need to be trained in neurodiversity—the idea that persons with autism possess differences that are strengths rather than weaknesses. Different juveniles require different approaches.” 

Autism is expressed in myriad ways, from the stereotypical savant as shown in the movie “Rain Man” to verbal insults and “acting out.” Moreover, bright lights, loud noises, handcuffs and other realities of policing can trigger strong reactions in autistic people and exacerbate the situation.

To their credit, people working in the juvenile justice system want to know more about autism, Drapela said. But there is a lot of work to do to equip them to work with youth with autism. A “best practices” literature on the subject that can be used to design treatments is difficult to find. The book offers guidance on how autism research can inform and improve juvenile justice policies in both countries. It starts with looking at the offender as an individual.

“There are all kinds of ways you can work with justice-involved people,” Drapela said, “but you’ve got to assess what they need”—for example, anger management, education, constructive social activities. “We need to develop diverse ways of reaching people, so once we know what they need, we know how to deliver it to them in ways that will resonate with their hearts and minds.”This fall, Drapela will begin a sabbatical year looking at youth of color in the juvenile justice system. “Juvenile detention rates are higher for kids of color,” she said. “If detention staff aren’t trained in identifying issues such as autism, these kids don’t get assistance and the juvenile justice system is just warehousing these youth when it could be helping them.” As she digs into the archives of juvenile probation counselors, she plans to pay particular attention to opportunities for expanding neurodiversity in juvenile justice practice.

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