Autism and law enforcement — baffling behavior calls for an understanding response

We admire the courage of Nathan Agneta and his parents in sharing the story of his arrest. It educated all of us about autism.

Guilderland reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair wrote the story, which was printed on the front page of our paper last week along with a picture of Nathan, smiling sweetly as he sat near an Adirondack waterfall on a recent family vacation — a slender boy on the cusp of manhood.

Nathan had been arrested last year after two empty bomb threats were made at Guilderland High School. Because he had just turned 16, Nathan was treated as an adult under New York State law. He was arraigned in open court on a charge of computer trespass with a felony purpose.

His friend, who was 15, was treated as a juvenile; his name was not released and his case was handled in Family Court away from public scrutiny. We advocated then as we have for the past two decades that New York join 48 other states in making 18 the age in which suspects are treated as adults. Such legislation was passed this year and will be implemented over the next two years.

Research has shown that adolescents’ brains are different than adults’ brains. A criminal-justice system that acknowledges that will benefit society as a whole: If the emphasis is on rehabilitation rather than punishment, we’ll have fewer hardened criminals and more productive citizens.

Now we have another important point to make: Police officers, judges, and parole officers — really anyone in the criminal justice system — should be aware of treating suspects with disabilities — in this case, autism — appropriately.

The Guilderland Police arrest report for Nathan Agneta says that he “used a stolen password to gain access to an email account which did not belong to him and without having the owner’s permission” and that he then “shared the password with a friend so that the friend could send two bomb threats to the Guilderland Central High School.”

Clearly, this was a bad thing to do. And Nathan and his parents acknowledge that. “We understand the seriousness of this, and we don’t want to make it seem like we don’t want to be held accountable,” said his mother, Katy Agneta, a special-education teacher.

She also said that Nathan has certainly been punished. “He was expelled. He was arrested. His mug shot’s all over the internet. He leads quite a different life because of this,” she said.

Nathan, whose crime was reduced to a misdemeanor, will serve three years of probation.

When his family took Nathan to the Albany County Probation Department for his first appointment, they were told, “He’s 16. You can’t go upstairs with him.”

When his mother explained he is on the autism spectrum she was allowed upstairs. She did not go into the room with im, noting it is his punishment, not hers, but she was nearby as he was in an unfamiliar place. “Some people get it, not that they’re going to change the punishment, but they’re very empathetic, she said.”

What Nathan did, essentially, was help a friend send an empty threat through a computer in a way the pair thought it couldn’t be traced.

According to the National Autistic Society, people on the autism spectrum, like Nathan, can be socially naive. “The desire to have friends has led some autistic people to be befriended by criminals, and become their unwitting accomplices. People on the autism spectrum often do not understand other people’s motives,” the society writes in its guidelines on criminal justice.

In an earlier era — before terrorism heightened society’s fear of threats —  a message just before Thanksgiving vacation telling the principal there was a bomb at school might have been viewed as a prank to get a longer vacation. No more.

We don’t fault the school district for taking every precaution — involving police officers with trained dogs to scour the school after the first threat and, after the second threat, to also check backpacks of entering students before locking down the school.

But once police suspected Nathan had shared the password, the way he was treated bears examination. The Agnetas have never been able to find out — and neither could The Enterprise — if Guilderland Police knew Nathan was autistic.

He was taken from his home when his parents weren’t there. When Nathan’s younger sister told their mother police had taken him, Katy Agneta said she was stunned. For a few panicked moments, she had no idea if it really had been police who took her son. And, even if it had been police, she had no idea where he might have been taken or why.

Once she called the Guilderland Police Station, she was told he was being questioned. By the time Nathan came out, his mother said, he had “almost passed out.” He had vomited, she said, and the police asked if he had taken something.

“I know they interrogated him pretty harshly,” Katy Agneta said. “I think any kid would be scared. But because Nate’s on the spectrum, I think experiences are heightened.”

She summed up the concern she and her husband share: “Our concern is how kids with a disability are treated, regardless of their age.”

The Autism Society has an information brochure for people in the criminal-justice system. It goes over a long list of traits that people with autism may have.

For instance, it notes — just as Katy Agneta did, that her son would not have known to ask for a lawyer — that people on the spectrum may not understand their rights or may not understand what is expected of them. Further, they may not understand verbal instruction or they may move away when approached.

They may avoid eye contact — often read as a sign of guilt — or may merely repeat what is said to them, which is sometimes misinterpreted as a sign of insolence. They may become anxious or agitated, producing fight-or-flight responses, or behaviors such as screaming, hand-flapping, or self–injury.

Just as the Guilderland Police asked if Nathan had taken something, people on the spectrum may appear to be under the influence of narcotics or intoxicants, the society’s paper says. Further, they may be fixated on a particular object or topic and may ask repeated questions or speak in a monotone voice with unusual pronunciations.

They may reverse pronouns, asking for example, “Can I stop?” instead of, “Can you stop?” They may give misleading statements or false confessions. Or they may be honest to the point of bluntness or rudeness. The list goes on.

The point is, police need training to be able to fairly deal with people on the autism spectrum. Autism affects one in 68 children born today and is on the rise, almost doubling since the 2004 rate of 1 in 125, according to the Autism Society.

While people with autism are no more likely than the regular population to commit crimes, they are three times more likely to be victims of crimes, so police need to know how to communicate effectively with them.

Floyd Mair interviewed Dennis Debbaudt, a man who has dedicated his life to training police and first responders across the country to recognize and more effectively communicate with people on the spectrum. Debbaudt lives in Florida with his 34-year-old son who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler.

People with autism, Debbaudt says, are up to seven times more likely than others to encounter police because of what is called the “suspicious person” contact, such as calls from neighbors or passersby who see someone doing something that doesn’t seem “normal.”

Police officers and first responders, Debbaudt says, can be prepared to deal with people on the autism spectrum by making sure their questions are clear and by limiting their gestures and facial expressions.

“Your nonverbal communication is as important as the verbal,” he said. His website has a video simulating police interviews with people on the spectrum. When asked if they agreed “to waive their Miranda rights,” several looked puzzled and, after confirming, “My right?” began to wave their right hands.

Again, as Nathan’s mother said, he wouldn’t have known to ask for a lawyer.

Nathan is high-functioning and verbal but others with autism are not. We urge area officers and first responders to learn how to deal sensitively and effectively with people on the spectrum. Albany County currently offers training on how to treat people who have mental illness to keep everyone safe. Next month, the program, which is run by the county’s mental health department and its mobile crisis team will include more information about developmental disorders, including autism.

The better trained our police officers are, the better off citizens — with or without autism — will be.

In the meantime, all of us should try to do what Katy Agneta praised the county probation department for — their empathy.

As she said, “Some people get it.” Let us, each and every one, try to be one of the people who get it.



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