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The role of autism symptomatology in certain specific child pornography offences

Clare Allely's latest blog entry

[Posted on 28 August, 2018 by Clare Allely]

Numerous follow-up studies have found that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are no more likely to engage in violent offending behaviour when compared to the general population. Some studies have even indicated that individuals with ASD may actually be less likely to engage in offending behaviour. However, it nevertheless remains imperative that the innate vulnerabilities which can contribute to offending behaviour in an individual with ASD are recognised and taken into consideration so that, in relevant cases, diversion programs are offered in order to avoid the stigma of a criminal conviction or during sentencing for a non-custodial outcome. In this blog, I focus on one particular type of offending behaviour, namely, possession of child pornography or child exploitative material. Interestingly, the possession of child pornography by individuals with ASD has received relatively little research attention beyond the mental health field. There is a real lack of empirical research into this area which urgently needs addressed. It is also important to highlight here that in no way is discussion around this area an attempt to minimise the responsibility of individuals with ASD who engage in such offending behaviour. Rather, the aim of promoting discussion in this area is to try to understand why some individuals with ASD may engage in such behaviours so that appropriate intervention and measures can be put in place.

So, what do we currently know about the typical pathway for someone with ASD to end up in possession of child pornography? There are many individuals with ASD who explore the internet for the purpose of sexual education or to satisfy their sexual needs as a result of little or no sexual outlets with their peers/friends. Many individuals with ASD will have a level of intelligence which is average or above average while their social maturity is more at the level of someone much younger. This means, for example, that a 27-year-old man with ASD can have a level of intelligence similar to his peers while having the social maturity of a 14-year-old. When we consider this, it becomes clearer why someone with ASD may be more interested in making friends with people who are, while much younger, are socially and emotionally at the same level as themselves. They feel more comfortable with them, etc. Thus, it may be that if and when they consume child pornography, this is likely better understood as a way for them to try to understand relationships and sexuality, rather than as a precursor to any sexual offending behaviour towards a minor.

Moreover, issues occur when individuals with ASD are completely unaware that what they have done is illegal. One of the contributory factors that explains this include their impaired ability to recognise the facial expressions of the children in the images they are viewing. There is a wealth of studies which have shown that individuals with ASD are, generally, impaired in their ability to recognise facial expressions like fear. Negative emotions such as fear or distress in the children in the images they are viewing may go completely unrecognised and they may therefore fail to appreciate that the child is a victim. It might also be explained by a lack of awareness of the broader issues such as where and how they obtained the images, who else may be able to access them and what some of the consequences are for the minors in the images. It is also crucial that the tendency for individuals with ASD to have a very literal view of the world is also considered in such cases. Specifically, an individual with ASD who comes across child pornography material online may not even think to question the legality of viewing such material. How could something which is illegal be so freely available on the internet (Mesibov & Sreckovic, 2017)? It may possibly be the case that some individuals with ASD inadvertently download and view child pornography because they are unable to accurately guess the age of the individuals in the images. Such issues are only further exacerbated by the fact that the boundaries or distinction between an adult and a minor can be “blurry”. In fact, it is frequently intentionally blurred by the media, pop culture and legal “adult” porn. The legality and severity of the offense is determined by the age of the victims in the images being viewed by the defendant, which only further highlights the need to consider the contributory role of ASD symptomology in such cases.

Another important issue to consider when a defendant with ASD finds themselves charged with possession of child pornography is that, as with many things that interest them, it is possible that the desire for this material can be markedly excessive and compulsive as a result of the compulsive and obsessive features of ASD – the ritualistic nature of ASD if you like. There can be thousands of images and files collected by the individual with ASD which are not even opened. ASD has been associated with many repetitive behaviours, such as the excessive interest and viewing of pornography. It is important to recognise this as there exists a widely held assumption that the level of risk that the individual presents is associated with the volume of images that they have accumulated or the nature of the content. Such a common view would believe that the more images there are the greater the level of obsession and therefore the greater the risk of the individual acting on this obsession and their urges. Such a commonly held belief is inconsistent with the findings from the literature which has investigated this and it also fails to consider the relationship between the volume of collected child pornography and the compulsive and obsessive features of ASD mentioned earlier.

Given the issues highlighted here, there is clearly an urgent need for more appropriate disposition of diversion from the criminal justice system for individuals with ASD who are charged with possession of child pornography. Indeed, there is an increasing amount of discussion in the literature regarding the ‘unduly harsh’ or ‘draconian sentences’ faced by individuals with ASD after being found guilty of violating child pornography statutes (Mahoney, 2009). In the book, Caught in the Web of the Criminal Justice System: Autism, Developmental Disabilities, and Sex Offenses, Professor Larry Dubin emphasises that there is a real need for diversion programmes and mental health courts for this particular population with this particular crime in mind in order that they can receive the necessary intervention, support and care.

Recommended Read:
Attwood, T., Hénault, I., & Dubin, N. (2014). The Autism Spectrum, Sexuality and the Law: What every parent and professional needs to know. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Mahoney, M. (2009). Asperger’s Syndrome and the Criminal Law: The Special Case of Child Pornography. Accessed on 4th July 2018.

Mesibov, G., & Sreckovic, M. (2017). Chapter 2. Child and juvenile pornography and autism spectrum disorder, In Caught in the Web of the Criminal Justice System: Autism, Developmental Disabilities, and Sex Offenses. Edited by Lawrence A. Dubin, J.D. and Emily Horowitz, Ph.D. Foreword by Alan Gershel, J.D. Introduction by Mark Mahoney, J.D. Afterword by Tony Attwood. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Sugrue, D. P. (2017). Chapter 4. Forensic assessment of individuals with autism spectrum charged with child pornography violations, In Caught in the Web of the Criminal Justice System: Autism, Developmental Disabilities, and Sex Offenses. Edited by Lawrence A. Dubin, J.D. and Emily Horowitz, Ph.D. Foreword by Alan Gershel, J.D. Introduction by Mark Mahoney, J.D. Afterword by Tony Attwood. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.