Asperger’s, autism, and sex offenders

RHYMES with crazy Lenore Skenazy  thumbnailBY LENORE SKENAZY

In a St. Francis College classroom in downtown Brooklyn last week, a dad introduced his son, now 30-something, and said, “I’m very proud of him.”

The dad, law professor Larry Dubin, told the small audience about his son Nick growing up, playing tennis, graduating college, and eventually writing several books. What dad wouldn’t be proud?

Then he talked about his son’s diagnosis: Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum. As a young child, Nick flapped his arms and jumped a lot. At three, he barely spoke. As an adult, he still cannot tie his shoes, making it all the more impressive that he has achieved so much.

Then the dad added one more item to his son’s resume: Nick is a convicted felon, a sex offender on the registry. He was found guilty of possession of child porn.

“That does not in any way dilute my feelings and respect for who Nick is as a person,” said the dad.

And maybe that’s something the rest of us have to digest.

What the dad has learned the hardest way possible is that many of the people charged with possession of child porn turn out to be people with developmental disabilities. One study found that it’s actually the majority, which is not totally surprising. These are people who have often grown up bullied and despised. Their neurological differences affect their lives in many ways, sometimes including the age of the people they relate to. They might not even understand that it’s wrong.

I realize this is a tough and depressing topic. But that is why it was so impressive that Larry and his son Nick decided to make this public appearance — their first — to discuss what it is like to live with a disability and be a sex offender. They were invited here from their home in Michigan by the Institute for Peace and Justice, the Center for Crime and Popular Culture, and the New York Sex Offense Working Group.

Nick took the podium after his silver-haired, professorial dad. He looked boyish in a striped sweater, which he may have chosen because he can’t tie a tie (people with Asperger’s can be genius-smart in some respects and far behind in others).

“I think you can see how I’ve been able to survive this,” he said, with a grateful nod toward his dad.

As a kid, Nick was tormented. Boys in the locker room would steal his towel. They taunted him. But as he watched them growing up and entering relationships, Nick felt even more alone.

Then he discovered the world of online porn, and that is where Nick went to feel less lonely. He knew there was something wrong about child porn, but he had no idea it was illegal. One morning, before dawn, his door burst open. Twelve men barged in. They yanked him out of bed, threw him against the wall and clapped him in handcuffs.

“I thought they were burglars,” Nick recalls. “I thought I was going to die.”

They were the FBI. He was under arrest for the pictures he’d been looking at.

By the time his case finally came to court, Nick had undergone five psych evaluations. They all concluded the same thing: He poses no threat to actual children. He had never touched any, and wouldn’t. Nonetheless, he was found guilty of viewing the illegal images, which makes him a felon.

“I don’t enjoy talking about this,” said Nick. But he decided to take this embarrassing leap into the spotlight because as word of his case spread — including the fact that his dad is a law professor — the family phone started ringing. And almost once a month it is a desperate parent, crying on the phone, saying the same thing just happened to their son — a son with Asperger’s, or autism or some other illness.

One case in Alabama just finished last month. A young man with autism was given 10 years in prison, which, Nick pointed out, may kill him. Already outcasts, people with autism have a very hard time with social cues, loud noises, and bright lights. Often, they end up in solitary confinement — sometimes begging for it.

The Alabama judge shrugged, saying, “You have autism? I’m bald. It’s just something we live with.”

Over the years in criminal cases we have come to take into account a defendant’s IQ. We understand that someone with mental retardation should be treated differently.

It’s time we realized that about people with other developmental differences, too.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.

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