Recently there was an article in Slate Magazine originally published in Spectrum News. The article focused on cases in which autistic individuals have ended up in the criminal legal system as a result of first time sex offenses. I was the featured subject of the article.
I need to clarify a number of aspects regarding this piece. For the sake of brevity I am not going to retell my entire story here but instead refer readers to my book.
The genesis of this article was an email NARSOL sent me. A reporter asked them if they knew anyone with expertise on the subject. NARSOL wondered if I could help steer this reporter in the right direction and I was happy to help her. Immediately I contacted the reporter and gave her the names of several professionals who I felt could lend expertise and authority to her piece. Additionally I let her know about a conference Oakland University was hosting on the subject of autism and sex offenses. I recommended she attend the conference to help her in writing her article. She took me up on this suggestion and traveled from her stationed post in New York to Rochester Michigan to attend the day long conference.
The reporter wanted to speak with my parents and I about our personal experiences in dealing with the criminal legal system. I was hesitant to participate in giving an interview because in general I prefer telling my own story versus having someone tell it for me. Yet I reasoned that by telling my story through a large media outlet I could help prevent others on the autism spectrum from going down the path I traveled. She could email me the questions and I’d answer via the form of a written response.
Based on her questions I knew I was going to become the subject of the article. I was not a happy camper. ‘Why was I doing this?’….I asked myself. I had already written a book on this subject bearing my soul in the form of a confessional, had participated in an interview with The Marshall Project and helped my dad edit another book on this subject where I contributed a chapter. So why would I want to put myself through the ringer again? The truth is I didn’t really want to but at this stage of her draft she had already decided I was going to be the subject of her article. Initially I balked and told her I wanted her to choose someone else as her subject but upon giving it further thought I kept coming back to the idea of primary prevention and having my story be a vehicle for the story of a sad cautionary tale.
Fast forward to when the article reached fruition and was published on Spectrum’s website. Initially it went under the radar. Totally unbeknownst to me, a day later Slate Magazine picked it up. All hell broke loose as far as the response to it.
The article framed the issue in appropriate terms. It was a good article which highlighted the importance of this subject and the urgency with which it needs to be addressed. Yet no one could seem to focus on the contents of the article. The readers focused on me instead.
In a surprisingly superficial way the article explained that I had a doctoral degree in psychology and was working at the time as a consultant for autistic individuals at a school. I did have a doctoral degree, that’s true. But I was exempted from certain requirements. The school made an exception and allowed me to forgo the 2000 hour clinical internship required for all other students with the understanding I was not seeking a license to practice psychotherapy by the state of Michigan. Additionally I led an incredibly sheltered life prior to my arrest. I did not watch the news nor was I interested in civics or politics (I am much more engaged in the world today than I was in 2010). I knew next to nothing about the criminal justice system and even less about the benefits of white privilege or the problems of mass incarceration. I had the classic trait of restrictive and repetitive interests commonly found in autistic people and I didn’t have many interests besides a select few. It was almost as if I was living in a protective bubble while trying to make it in the world. Additionally the “job I had at the school” which was mentioned in the article? It was my first “real” job outside of teaching tennis at the age of 33.
People criticized the fact that I stated I was not aware of the illegality of looking at those images yet had a Psy.D. I wish I could offer an explanation that would be more satisfying to people. The truth is I didn’t. How do I explain this? It’s hard but all I can do is think of a few personal examples. I played No. 1 singles on both my high school and college tennis teams but to this day I can’t tie my shoes or a tie. I can drive a car but I can’t cook except by nuking my food. I can write a book but I can’t draw a stick figure beyond a first or second grade level. I have a Psy.D but have trouble changing a lightbulb. These are all extremely embarrassing facts. Yet I mention them to show that my development is highly uneven. I had a blind spot. It was a big blind spot but nevertheless it was there. These kinds of blind spots, asynchronicities or uneven aspects of development are not unusual for people on the autism spectrum.
This does not mean there wasn’t harm caused nor does it mean I am not extremely remorseful for what I did. I took full responsibility for causing harm in the article and expressed complete regret for my unfortunate actions. And I will remain remorseful until the day I die. Yet for some readers this was not enough. So I need to emphasize a point of importance and also a common aphorism: If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum. Many autistic people would have known that this was illegal behavior. My story is not everyone else’s story and is not meant to cast a negative stigma on other autistic individuals. But some other autistic people would not have been aware of the illegalities. Yes, even some educated autistic people would not have known. How do I know this? Because over the past 9 years I have become aware of the stories of hundreds of families whose autistic sons have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system for this crime. I know their stories intimately. I have seen the devastation wreaked on autistic adults who languish today in solitary confinement because they literally did something in their parents’ basement that they didn’t understand was illegal.
The other criticism was that illegal images are hard to find or so people claimed. In 2010 I can assure you this was not the case. This is a point of fact. All someone had to do was google “find free music” and Limewire would appear in the Google search engine results. You didn’t need to go to the dark web. These horrible things were literally “a few clicks away”. You would click on the link to Limewire that you found on Google and Pandora’s box opened. It might be harder to obtain these images today. I really don’t know and frankly I’m not at all interested in finding out. But I can tell you that in 2010 it was exceedingly easy to obtain: Too easy.
I am a man of faults and regrets but my story is true and because of the Slate article it has been called into question. My story is just my story. It doesn’t represent everyone on the autism spectrum but enough people have reached out to me and my father to know that it isn’t unique to me.
I have tried to redeem myself since 2010. Right now I am also working on a book to be published about how the criminal legal system can more compassionately respond to the needs of ASD individuals that will be backed by research. But the presentations I give and the books I write are not about me. They are about all the other autistic individuals coming down the pipeline who I am trying to warn before it is too late. They’re about those who can’t find decent housing or a job because their parents are forced to move as a result of living too close to a school or public park. They’re about autistic people who are not eligible for Section 8 housing because of their sex offender status. They’re about the autistic young man placed in a restraint chair in jail/prison, sexually abused by guards or placed in solitary right now as we speak. They’re about the autistic person who won’t be eligible to use a nursing home when he becomes of age because of his future sex offender status. THAT’S why I made myself the focus of this article and why I do what I do.
I will no longer let others tell my story for me. This I have learned. But I will not quit advocating for those on the autism spectrum. If you want to know my story from top to bottom and help your loved one avoid a collision course with the law, read my book and not the Slate article.