Amid ongoing discussions of criminal justice reform, a Washington State University professor argues in a new book that now is the time to focus on better serving children and teens on the autism spectrum who become entwined in the juvenile justice system.

Youth on the spectrum need greater access to mental health support staff who can provide counseling and act as advocates, writes Laurie Drapela, an associate professor of criminal justice at WSU Vancouver, and author of “Law and Neurodiversity – Youth with autism and the juvenile justice systems in Canada and the United States.”

Drapela and co-authors Dana Lee Baker from California State University and Whiney Littlefield, a juvenile probation counselor in Washington’s Cowlitz County, think more training is necessary for police and corrections officers to help them better recognize the signs of autism. Significant effort also must be put into transitioning from a punitive response to the behaviors of children and teens with autism to identifying sources of community support for youth that often struggle with communication and social interaction.

By taking these steps, the juvenile justice system could improve at its stated goal: Reducing the likelihood of a child or teen taking part in criminal behavior as an adult.

“There is a real opportunity to start broadening how individuals involved in the juvenile justice system work with people on the autism spectrum who come to the attention of law enforcement,” Drapela said.

Baker, a former WSU faculty member, said she and Drapela saw the topic as understudied when approached by their publisher in 2016. A prior observation of a juvenile court procedure originally sparked her interest in researching how these systems fail youth on the autism spectrum.

“While observing a juvenile court hearing, I saw a child who clearly had autism bowing to the judge and people in the courtroom were laughing,” Baker recalled. “I was so struck by that moment. We can and should do better.”

One of their goals with the new book is to bridge the divide between researchers and juvenile justice practitioners.  Demonstrating that punitive-centric systems fail children and teens with autism is central to that effort, Drapela said. It’s also vital that police officers and court officials better recognize signs that a child or teen they come into contact with is autistic and requires mental health support.

Closeup of Laurie Drapela
Laurie Drapela

Children and teens of color on the autism spectrum face additional hurdles because popular frames of reference for autism, such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man,” are largely portrayed by white actors. It’s possible that police or corrections officers may miss cues that a youth of color is autistic because of this, among other factors, Drapela said.

One in 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to CDC data from 2016. Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism. In Canada, the most recent prevalence rate is one in 66, per the country’s National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System.

Drapela and her coauthors focused on the history of juvenile justice systems in the two countries, finding that Canada does a better job of implementing social programs for youth with autism and connecting community stakeholders and social service agencies.

“One thing that really differentiates the United States is its very pointed interest on being harsh and using punitive measures,” Drapela said. “It pervades our culture.”

In tandem with reducing the use of punitive measures, Drapela argues the United States needs to reinvest in social support efforts.

“So much of what police engage with now are people with mental health issues, addiction problems, people who are poor or homeless, who would be better served by specialized social service workers,” Drapela said. “There are people who need jail cells, but in expanding the scope of the criminal justice system and shrinking the scope of our social assistance system, we’ve done a disservice to vulnerable populations.”

Additional resources in schools for students on the spectrum is also critical, as is additional training for school resource officers, Baker said.

“Behaviors exhibited by students on the spectrum may not be as different as behaviors in the environment at-large, yet they can be observed as criminal because of the lens being used,” she said.

Media contact:

  • Laurie Drapela, Washington State University Vancouver, 360-546-9485, ldrapela@wsu.edu