“Autism Is Not a Crime” with Australian self-advocate Tom Oliver | EDB 269
Australian self-advocate Tom Oliver discusses his work helping autistic individuals caught in the justice system.
(VIDEO – 30 mins) Tom Oliver is a TEDx Speaker and Global leader on autistic individuals caught up in the justice system. He is expected to graduate with LLB and BBioMedSc from The University of Notre Dame Australia, in 2023. He plans to graduate with First Class Honours in Law, in 2023. Subsequently, he plans to be admitted into the LLM at Harvard Law School, in 2024. Tom further works as an Autism Consultant at Savannah Legal Barristers & Solicitors, advising on autistic offenders, and assisting in obtaining tailored, non-custodial sentences. He has a keen interest in litigation, governance, human rights law, intellectual property law, criminal law, banking and finance law, and genetics/neuroscience.
In his spare time, Tom mentors fellow autistic youths across Western Australia. He also speaks at global events/seminars/webinars, advocating for autistic individuals caught up in our justice system, and in gaining employment, through: TED; the Institute of Neurodiversity; CoderDojo; The Business of Autism; IBM’s Neurodiversity Celebration Month as Keynote Speaker; Visa; Asda; Tesco; Hogan Lovells; Rolls-Royce; radio stations (89.7fm); Engaging Education; the Western Australian Association of Teacher Assistants Inc. (WAATA); People with Disabilities WA (PWdWA); The Annual Summit on Autism Expo; and The Law Society of Western Australia.
To find out more about Tom’s work, visit: https://tomoliver.biz/
His TED Talk can be seen here: https://youtu.be/i_j5jOadcVc
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HACKIE REITMAN MD (HR):
Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. And today, I’m excited because we’re going all the way to Western Australia, way, way far away to get the autism self advocate, the man who’s missed the justice: Mr. Tom Oliver. Tom, welcome.
TOM OLIVER (TO):
Thank you very much. Thank you. That’s a very kind introduction.
Well, very kind what you do when it’s very self sacrificing way to make sure that all of us have justice, especially those of us whose brains are a little bit different. We might have autism, and you have devoted your life to justice. How’d you get into that.
Yes, and I should say, so I was diagnosed with autism, about five and a half years ago when I was 15. And I’d like to say that when I was diagnosed, I remember my parents sitting me down and telling me as such, and I felt that they imposed his disability on me. And I immediately sought recourse to the internet. And I actually found your podcast hacky. And I was listening to the people you interview on, on Different Brains. And, and it was really quite astounding because I’ll say it’s really important the work you do because I remember feeling like I related more so to people I found on the internet, LinkedIn, YouTube, then people that I was surrounded with. And I think that’s the nature of autism. So I just thank you for your work Hackie — really important and, yeah.
Well, thank you for the kind words, and, uh, you know, it’s, it’s just that all of our brains are different. And we get the whole world to just look at each individual and say, yes, he’s a little bit different. She’s a little bit different. How can I help that person achieve their goals and look at you look at all you’re accomplishing, and you’re rooting for the underdog, you’re rooting for the artistic individual that got him or herself into trouble with the law. What made you gravitate toward justice and the law?
Yeah, I guess. I always looked up to lawyers, because they always stood up for what they believed in. And they were in a position to make change. And I felt that it’s really important for people who are autistic, who are lawyers to become lawyers, so that they can initiate change for the courts as they believe in and stand up for other autistic people. I’ve always loved rules. And so I think, naturally, it’s suits me dispensationally. diagnostically on account of my autism. I think that that technical attributes the high attention to detail, which is incumbent upon lawyers, suits autistic people to go into the legal profession. And I do have a very strong sense of justice. And as much as I do love rules, I like finding loopholes around rules. So that helps. And, yeah, I remember when I did go to law school, I studied law and biomedical science at present, I’ve got two years to go. And I started doing internships at criminal defense firms. And what I saw hacking was really quite astounding, I would have been, you know, barely 19 years old, I just finished my first year of law school. And I remember the clients that were coming in a huge proportion were indeed autistic. And a lot of the clients that came in had criminal intent, malice, really full on stuff.
But what I found was empirically, a lot of the autistic clients certainly know criminal intent, started off with really inadvertent trivial matters, which are simply escalated. And I was really quite astounded. I went away, I did some research, and found that whilst 2% of people are autistic, approximately 4 to 5% of prisoners are autistic, and that doesn’t include the undoubtedly numerous undiagnosed autistic prisoners. And I think that study was done in 2014 or 2015. So it’s, it’s and more people are being diagnosed for obvious reasons, and so the statistics are really it skewed. And so I went away, I sought recourse to various mentors, some Harvard lawyers, and some Cambridge University Medical researchers whom I know and did some legal research and distilled the cases into three distinct categories of autistic characteristics. And we distilled them down to number one was inability to read and respond to social cues. Number two was hypersensitivities, whether that be to touch sound smells or the like, and number three was obsessive interests. And we did found a number of case law, every case fit that were that involved in autistic offenders seem to fit in to one of these characteristics. And I delivered a TED talk on this. And it’s, it’s really blowing up now.
You know, it’s interesting, you use the word “intent”, which I just heard today, and it struck my ears, because of a couple of cases of horrible mass murders that are just ongoing in the United States as of yesterday, and today, and the word intent came up. And there’s obviously a difference, which is so clear in your mind between somebody who accidentally misunderstand something and does something against the law versus the other extreme, which is someone who’s written a manifesto about how they’re going to murder everybody, and they hate everybody, and they’re gonna kill them. You know, there’s those two different things. How have you been finding the education of the people in the justice system? Have you found a willing audience amongst law enforcement and the justice system itself?
That’s a that’s a really insightful comment and a great question. And before I answer, I’ll say that one of the first cases I came across, which really highlighted this, this grave issue for me was the case of Darius and he’s from the US, and essentially, Darius — autistic people tend to have obsessive interests, and he was obsessed with the public transport system. And Darius was taught as a child by employees of a train station in New York, to drive and operate trains and buses, getting his passengers from A to B, all in perfect timing all passengers satisfied with the service. And as an adult, Darius was a directive decided to get in a train, he wasn’t employed. And he decided to get into train and operated getting his passengers, as I say, from A to B, all in perfect timing, doing a perfect job. But he wasn’t employed. And so he was charged with impersonating a federal employee, he was imprisoned. And upon his initial imprisonment term, he, again, was released and then decided to again drive and operate trains and buses, because it’s all he knew. And he was again in prisons again, release and the cycle just continued. And Darius, so this is a real life case. And Darius has spent most of his adult life incarcerated and segregated from society.
And I think it really behooves us to consider Hackie, whether in such cases, are we merely punishing the Darius for being autistic or punishing him for his offense if he can’t help that is if it’s due to his underlying autistic characteristics? And to answer your question, I would say that probably the most recipients, target audience, if you like, has been autistic or parents of autistic children. And I say this because they tend to be very fearful, even if their child son or daughter hasn’t yet been caught up with the justice system that I hear all too often hacky how, you know, they tell me just how easily they could see their child or doing something which they can see would render them susceptible to being construed as a police officer as that were taught to be flagged, and then really non exhaustive. Examples of cases where, you know, an autistic person might be stimming. They might look like a drug addict to a police officer. There might be questions, they might misunderstand what a police officer is telling them to do or say that can damage their case. really, really not exhaustive. But to answer your question, it’s been really one which is receptive. The audience has been really receptive. But I have been surprised by the lack of lawyers who specializes in this area globally. There’s only one in because I’m based in Australia. And there’s only one other lawyer I know of who’s in a different state to myself. She’s in South Australia. And I know Carol Weinman in the US, who I think you interviewed. She’s very passionate about what she does, and a close colleague of mine and, and there are I forget the names of others, I think I know, approximately five in the US. And it’s what I’ve been trying to do. And it’s what I want to do when I graduate from law school is, is indeed set up my own law firm defending people with disabilities and autism alike, and, and really fighting for a justice system, which caters for all I do work as a consultant, at a, at a boutique, very small criminal defense firm.
And it’s actually quite heartbreaking because I do receive since my TED Talks been published, and since being named a Young Australian of the Year finalist, I’ve received, I still receive approximately 20 emails per week, from people. I’m talking around the world, complete strangers, who enlightened me to the specific, comprehensive circumstance which they’re in, whether that be their autistic themselves, and they’ve they’ve, you know, come into contact with the justice system or someone a loved one. And it’s really heartbreaking because they say, you know, please help me, any help is appreciated. But because we live in a jurisdictional legal system worldwide. You need counsel, in various jurisdictions, like if I commit an offense, here in Western Australia, and I’m autistic, and I want to seek counsel from a lawyer who’s in South Australia, I can’t do that. I do guest lecturing at Curtin University here in Western Australia, lecturing on autistic individuals caught up in the justice system trying to educate law students as to these issues. But I would I do agree with you and I and I, that’s, that’s actually really exciting. Getting global interest in this.
Because advocates like yourself, who seem to have the fire, but many times, they don’t have a vehicle because the vehicle doesn’t exist,
I did want to bring up a point, just because it’s just escaped my mind. We did in terms of global advocacy, what we what we didn’t do, which I thought would have greater impact, but because of various red tape, which I’ll explain now, it hasn’t come as as we’d like, essentially, we we saved. So essentially, through my TED Talk and bringing in lots of clients were able to save one particular autistic client from 15 years of imprisonment. And that brought about a lot of media attention. And we essentially set a precedent for suitable therapy over imprisonment for an autistic clients, Notwithstanding that, typically, comparative cases would have definitely received imprisonment terms. But what what what was disappointing about that particular case, and cases like this one that we see at the firm, are that we essentially have to have, you know, a sort of sidebar conversation with the prosecution sort of requesting sort of mercy, almost, if you like, and in that particular case, which happened fairly recently, the prosecution didn’t actually request a specific term of imprisonment to his honor. And so we were sort of lucky, I would argue, because I get a lot of questions about that case. But But I do think we’re sort of lucky. And what I’m trying to do, through the platform I have is make more, sort of pull the weight out by the roots, rather than merely snapping it at the stem and make much needed and long awaited law reform to in Western Australia, we have the West Australian Sentencing Act of 1995. But there are equivalent legislation across the world and essentially the Sentencing Act, we want to we want to add an insertion such the judges in their judicial discretion, must release an autistic offender, where their autistic characteristics are the underlying cause for their crimes, those being inability to read and respond to social cues, obsessive interests hypersensitivities so that they can get the suitable therapy they deserve. The studies show that autistic people do not respond effectively nor even adequately to mainstream correctional settings. Autistic people do not fall in prison.
What advice would you have for the autistic individual themselves and their families in regard to all of this?
I get a lot of questions about parenting. And I do, I will say, before I answer that, I do get a lot of concerning propositions to the effect that, you know, you’re obviously cured of autism, how can I cure my son or daughter? And to that, I say, yeah, there’s, there’s, you’ve mixed up the presupposition, there is no cure for autism, you wouldn’t want to cure it. It’s a way of life, it’s, it’s who you are as a person, and there’s no cure, nor should there be. It’s a strength, it’s not purely a disability, like any person, there are strengths and weaknesses, wouldn’t take my autism back for a second, I also get a lot of questions around, you know, where the line is between pushing an autistic person out of their comfort zone, they obviously, typically love structure and routine. They, they, they, in light of having special interests, they tend to gravitate towards the same thing over and over again, they it’s a, it becomes a way of life. And parents often think that they ought to try and push them out of their comfort zone. But at the same time, you don’t want to push them too far out of their comfort zone to the point where they’re having, you know, anxiety, induced Comins, you know, meltdowns if they can’t cope, and so it is it is a fine line, and I’m not a parent myself. And so I can only sympathize. But I would say it’s important. I think it’s important to listen to the autistic person. And I think I will, I will say, and I’m really struggling with this open ended question, so I apologize. But I will say, I will, I will touch upon the correlation between employments and the justice system. And I think it’s, it would be unwise of me to unwise of anybody to think that the two are mutually exclusive.
Because I think the studies show that nearly 20% of autistic people are currently employed, which is, which is baffling to me, because they tend to be good at one thing, they tend to be very specialized. And so if they can just go into that area, you know, I talked about Darius earlier, if he could be employed by that, by that train station, why not, he’s doing a perfect job. But because he has a criminal record, he can’t, he can’t be avoided. And, and so I think we ought to rethink the way we employ people, I think we ought to refine down what actually matters in an employment setting. Because in the in terms of the way in which it affects the criminal justice system, if you don’t have a vocation, you’re more susceptible to getting in touch with the wrong crowd. And because autistic people tend to mask around mask other people’s behaviors, it’s all the more important that they’re surrounded by people who are of good influence people that they can relate to so potentially, or preferably other autistic neurodiverse people.
And I think the the tech that’s been taken with some of the large corporations has been and I know when I speak, I point this out to the corporations that: don’t do it to be nice, do it to make more money. Yeah, if I hire a Tom Oliver instead of a, quote, neurotypical alright. If I am able to harness what’s special about your gifts, I’m gonna make more money as a corporation. So it’s, it’s a victimless crime, you know, go ahead and do it. As opposed to do it because it’s a be a wonderful human being and everything.
I was talking to — I was invited to speak at her at a global webinar with it was there was a representative from IBM there was a representative from JPMorgan Chase, and other other organizations. I remember a guy I can’t remember Last time, Lee from JP Morgan, he was a vice president there. And he said that studies out of JPMorgan Chase was showing that autistic people were 110%, or 120%, rather more productive than neurodiverse interns at their organization, which I thought was, was quite staggering. But I will say that, for example, I’m doing an internship at the moment, because I’m in the latter stages of law school with through an autism internship program. But it’s designed for ICT and engineering, that sector. And I think firms are getting so caught up, and at the risk of stereotyping autistic people, because they just see autistic people and software engineers, or ICT professionals. And I think it’s time to see that autistic people have talents in a variety of areas. I think the stereotypes contaminating that, that viewpoint. I’ve been asked to speak at the Law Society of Western Australia this Thursday, which is the governing body of the legal profession, to talk about how we can get more autistic people into into the legal profession. I mean, I don’t know any autistic lawyers and who that’s for sure. And, and I think the answer is being more proactive in seeking out candidates. And, and, and I think, whether that be through collaborating with the the local nonprofits, or autism service providers, I just think there’s such a large emphasis on, you know, the STEM fields, for better or for worse. So I’ll leave that.
But I’ll I’ll also say that, you know, I think that’s the trouble I have is I people often say that, or you’ve obviously, you know, you’re obviously on the higher end of the spectrum, Tom, you’ve, you’ve sort of made it, you know, other other people might be low functioning, and therefore have greater difficulty. And to that, I say that when I was in, in elementary or primary school, which is in Australia, that’s before you go to high school, I remember at recess and lunchtime in the breaks, I really, really struggled with acne, I actually, I remember, I still have vivid memories all the way through simply crying and running away to a dark corner, or, you know, going to a lodging or you know, a dark tunnel or just anywhere to get away, I found the unstructured environment, didn’t understand how to converse with other people, I found having a conversation, like having, like playing 10 Different chess games at once that each time you say something, there’s a greater possibility of exponential potential responses, it’s too overwhelming. And so and I look back when I got my diagnosis of autism, and I think just how easily it could have gone wrong for me. You know, I was very, I think, especially as a teenager, you’re more susceptible to being angry, especially if you don’t understand yourself. And that’s why I’m so passionate about the work I do, because I take great pride in the work I do. Because essentially, you know, if I were to be imprisoned, incarcerated at that age, I really don’t think things would be well would be good at all, to put it lightly. And so yeah, I just think I also say parents who say that they go through this so called grieving process when they first hear of the son or daughter having an autism diagnosis. And I think that’s such a shame because I think they’re upon they they grieve, ambitions and what what their son or daughter could do in life, and therefore the bots has dropped so far down. And I don’t think that’s necessarily find it to be highly superfluous.
I remember when I first went into the legal profession, because essentially, I was really worried about entering the legal profession because I struggle enough with interacting, knowing when to talk, understanding social cues, knowing when people are meaning what they say or whether they don’t. And, and with the legal profession there are even more social conventions, non written and social conventions I’m referring to, and so I was very, very concerned. But I remember my first job I went in, and I was in the waiting room and this lady came out And she said, Oh, Tom, welcome. And she took me into this, this room. And it had two chairs, and a table. And she said, all right this way, and then she goes, Tom, grab a seat. And so I thought, okay, so I grabbed the seat, and I stood there, holding the seat. And I remember thinking at the time, we were going to take this interview elsewhere, because the room is too small. I didn’t understand. So I was just telling you what to say. And it’s sort of a miracle that I got that job. There are just so many instances where I just think kindness can go a long way.
I do remember, there was also one incident where I was working for this criminal barrister. And we were in chambers working. And I was I was still very young. So this would have been, you know, sort of four years ago there abouts. So I just graduated from high school. And you know, wasn’t, I’ve come a long way in terms of social skills from them. But the barrister said to me, I think it must have been a hot day. He said, Oh, Tom, feel free to take your jacket off. And I said, Oh, no, thank you. I’d rather keep all my clothes on that’s fine. Just completely oblivious. And that was not deemed as socially acceptable, apparently. Apparently, that was, you know, being a smart aleck, like you say, and it was completely misconstrued. And I remember walking home afterwards. And my friend ran up to me and caught up to me and said, Tom, what were you? What were you thinking? Like, what were you doing? I said, What do you mean? I don’t understand. So yeah.
Is there anything you would like to cover, Tom, that we have not covered? today?
I’m very grateful for you having me on. As I say, I remember when I was first diagnosed, going on to Different Brains on the podcast, and thinking it was so cool what you guys were doing just the objectives of the entire podcast. It’s such a cool resource for people to have people who wouldn’t normally meet, because it’s very a lot of the people that come on the show. It’s very niche. And so you can’t really meet these people unless you go online. And so it’s a really important service you guys are providing. So thank you so much for having me.
Thank you for the kind words, and it’s people like you, who are leading the charge out there, the self advocates who, unlike me, you’re able to speak with much more clarity than I do. Oh, yeah, you’re good. You don’t know how good you are. That’s, that’s great. So I salute you.
What’s the main thing… the main thing that people don’t realize related to autism and the justice system?
I don’t think people understand that’s the sentencing rationales or not apply in the same way as they do to a neurotypical person. And by that I mean, general deterrence, and I mean, specific deterrence and, and general deterrence is where you’re deterring other people from committing like offenses. And how that applies to an autistic person is, it doesn’t, because it’s like saying, you know, I’m going to punish this autistic person so that other people don’t commit the same offense. But the reality is, the this autistic client that we have doesn’t, it doesn’t have autism, like all of it. The general public doesn’t have autism. And so they don’t need to be deterred in the same way as this person. And likewise, specific deterrence doesn’t apply, because specific deterrence being deterring the person that you’re punishing from committing the offense again, because and that this is the more important one because the autistic person is committing this offense, as we found through these studies through our findings, for the most part, because of their autistic characteristics, which they’re born with. And so, by imprisoning these people, all we’re doing is kicking the can down the road, when they’re released again, because their autistic characteristics are who they are, you can’t take them away from them can’t associate their autistic characteristics from themselves. They end up doing the same thing. They commit the same offenses in the same way. And so the only way to to solve this issue if you like, is through tailored suitable therapy.
Tom Oliver, thank you so much for spending time with us here at Exploring Different Brains. And we certainly hope you’ll come back soon. Keep up the great work you’re doing in Australia and all over the world thank you so much Tom.
Thank you for having me Hackie it’s been pleasure.