Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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a. What is autism?

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     Thanks to The National Autistic Society for writing this section on autism.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and how they experience the world around them. Around 700,000 people in the UK have autism. Together with their families they make up over 2.8 million people whose lives are touched by autism every day.

Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives, while others may need a lifetime of specialist support.

Autism is not a learning disability or a mental health condition; however some people with autism may have accompanying learning disabilities or mental health conditions. People with autism may also experience over or under sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. This can have a profound impact on their life. For example, public buildings such as courts can be noisy and brightly lit, which can make a person with autism especially anxious.

There are different terms which are used to describe people on the autism spectrum. Asperger syndrome is part of the autism spectrum. Other terms used include: autistic spectrum disorder, autism spectrum disorder, autism spectrum condition, high functioning autism, pervasive development disorder (PDD), classic autism, and Kanner autism.

Throughout this resource the term ‘autism’ will be used to cover the whole spectrum, including those with Asperger syndrome.

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