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Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Marshall Project - Downloading a Nightmare: When autism, child pornography and the courts collide. By Anat Rubin

Filed 10:01 p.m.

05.31.2017

Downloading a Nightmare


When autism, child pornography and the courts collide.




The Raid: Just two hours before the SWAT team surrounded their home on a quiet Midwestern suburban street, Joseph’s parents were sitting together at church, saying thanks for the immense progress their autistic son had recently made. After decades of struggling with a debilitating developmental disability, Joseph—we’re using his middle name to protect his privacy—was beginning to find his place in the world. At 25, he had a full-time job and was getting ready to move out on his own. The details of that Tuesday evening in 2012—where they sat in the empty church, the light through the stained glass windows—might have been lost in the usual blur of memories if not for the fact that they represent, for Joseph’s parents, the last moments of their life before. And everything for the family is now divided into before and after—two distinct worlds separated by armed men banging on the front door.
“They showed up at about 8 o’clock and by 8:10 we were all in handcuffs,” said Joseph’s dad. “Camouflage, bulletproof vests, helmets, assaults pistols. It was a military operation—there’s no other way to describe it.”
Joseph had been viewing and downloading child pornography, and federal officials had traced the illicit images to his IP address.
Outside, the neighbors watched as the men in body armor surrounded the house. Inside, some of the officers searched the rooms for evidence while others rounded up the family members and brought them, at gunpoint, to the living room. Joseph had no idea what was going on. It didn’t occur to him that something he had on his computer could be connected to the raid.
“Then a county detective came in, and he zeroed in on me very quickly,” Joseph said. “He took me into my room. He knew I was the one who knew about computers. He asked me about child pornography.”
Joseph immediately admitted to everything. Like many people with autism, he’s brutally honest. After the officers took him in for further questioning, a detective explained to his parents and 16-year-old sister that Joseph had downloaded and viewed pictures and videos depicting the sexual exploitation of children.
“Then he told us that this could lead to abuse of children,” his father said. And that’s when Joseph’s sister, who hadn’t said a word since she first opened the door to find men with a battering ram on her front porch, began to sob.


“Tip of the iceberg?" The events unfolding in Joseph’s home—the SWAT team, the stunned parents, the vast collection of child pornography on a hard drive—have become increasingly familiar to autism clinicians and advocates. They are part of a troubling and complex collision between the justice system and a developmental disability that, despite its prevalence, remains largely misunderstood in courts across the country.
The result for defendants can be the crushing impact of a system that clinicians say confuses autistic behavior with criminal intent and assumes, without hard evidence, that looking at images could be the precursor to illicit and dangerous contact with kids.
Over several months, The Marshall Project interviewed a dozen families whose adult autistic sons were caught up in child pornography investigations—as well as clinicians, lawyers, and autism organizations scrambling to respond to parents who call in the aftermath of an arrest.
It is unclear whether their stories point to a larger trend, or if people with autism are overrepresented among those prosecuted for downloading child pornography. But their cases throw into question some of our assumptions about men who are caught with images and videos of child exploitation, and shed light on the ways in which the criminal justice system is struggling to understand autistic defendants.
Child pornography is widespread, easily accessible, and horrible to contemplate. Uncounted images and videos circulate in perpetuity, making it difficult for some victims—many of whom are now adults—to move beyond the pain and humiliation of the darkest moments of their lives.
But autistic defendants, clearly guilty of having downloaded or shared the illicit material, are victims of a different order, their advocates say.
People on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum can have impressive cognitive abilities that mask areas of extreme deficit. They might be intellectually adult but socially childlike, hobbled by their inability to read emotion or understand non-verbal communication. They long for meaningful relationships but are routinely rejected because they are unable to navigate the intricate, invisible rules of social interaction. They are isolated and carry with them the scars of having been ridiculed and bullied in school.
And so a great many people with high-functioning autism take refuge in computers, which allow them a way of approaching the world without the discomfort and risk of face-to-face interaction. “And they transfer to that computer the same naiveté, the same lack of street smarts and common sense, that they have in their everyday life,” said Ami Klin, a nationally recognized autism clinician and researcher who heads Emory University's and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Marcus Autism Center.
From a young age, the internet becomes a portal through which to pursue the obsessive, narrow interests that are a hallmark of autism— a place to collect and categorize information on train timetables or the inner workings of cameras. During adolescence, the internet also becomes a place through which to explore sexuality. This is by no means uncommon—a recent study found that 93 percent of boys are exposed to online pornography during their adolescence. But for those on the spectrum, the internet might be the sole source of information about sexuality well into adulthood. As they become more isolated, they spend an increasing amount of time online, where child pornography—once bought through the mail or in the backrooms of bookstores—is now just a few clicks away.
Klin first encountered the issue more than a decade ago, when, as director of Yale’s autism program, he was asked to consult on a case involving a former patient charged with possessing child pornography. Klin had worked with the defendant when he was a child, and tried to explain to the judge and prosecutor the role that Asperger’s syndrome had likely played in the man’s actions.
Soon after, Klin was asked to consult on two more cases involving former patients charged with the same crime, and he was becoming alarmed. In a 2008 letter to a federal judge, he said he was convinced he “was seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
“Individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, whose disability makes them especially vulnerable to committing this sort of offense, are entering a criminal justice system that is unfamiliar with their condition,” Klin wrote. “Their conduct is easy to misinterpret, with devastating consequences.”
Escalating punishments for downloading child pornography—years in prison, a lifetime on the sex registry—are fueled by the pervasive belief that someone who views depictions of child sex abuse must also be capable of sexually abusing a child. But autism clinicians say people on the spectrum lack the ability to manipulate or “groom” a child for abuse. And studies show that their inability to read other people’s intentions makes them especially vulnerable to being sexually abused by others. They are, Klin said, “much more likely to be victims than victimizers.”
The line between legal and illegal in the world of online pornography may be especially blurry for someone without an inherent understanding of social mores and taboos. Some pursue their curiosity well beyond that line, viewing and downloading thousands of images of children—many of them prepubescent, some much younger. Until it is clearly explained to them, clinicians say, many cannot fathom what most people intuit: that the children in the pictures and videos are the victims of horrific abuse.
About one in 42 American boys is autistic, and they face significant social and behavioral challenges that can sometimes get them into trouble with the law as they get older. But those on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum have an especially difficult time in court.
“With people who are lower functioning, the disability is obvious,” said Leigh Ann Davis, head of the National Center of Criminal Justice and Disability. “When it’s not immediately apparent, it causes all sorts of issues. The system doesn’t recognize the disability.”


Joseph: Joseph’s parents began to notice something was wrong with their son when he was a toddler. He didn’t like to be touched and didn’t make eye contact. He preferred to spend time by himself, and his language skills were lagging far behind his peers. He was almost four years old before he completed his first sentence.
In kindergarten, Joseph was diagnosed with ADHD. Two years later, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s. He was seeing neurologists, psychiatrists, and developmental pediatricians. Then, in the fourth grade, a special education evaluator saw something his teachers and therapists had missed: Joseph was very good with numbers. She gave him a series of complicated math sequencing problems, and he solved them without difficulty.
“She called me and told me about the test results, and I asked ‘Well, what does that mean?’” his mom said. “And she said ‘It means his brain works like a computer.’"
In 1997, when he was 11 years old, Joseph was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which was then a relatively new diagnosis under the autism umbrella. Today, Asperger’s is commonly referred to as “high-functioning” autism. But the name can be misleading. Many people with high-functioning autism remain dependent throughout their adult lives.
Joseph’s parents were determined to help him avoid that fate. When it became clear he would languish at the local public school, his mom left her job to home-school him. She created games to teach him how to read basic facial expressions, and engaged him by tailoring lessons around those things that captured his attention. It became apparent, early on, that computers would play a key role in building a bridge between Joseph and the outside world.
Joseph found solace in computers. He used a computer for the first time in fourth grade. By the following year, he had taught himself how to write code. Computers made sense to him in a way the social world never had. He built his first computer when he was 12 years old, dragging his parents to electronics shops to find motherboards and central processing units. When he was 15, he was earning money by fixing computers for neighbors and family friends.
By that time, Joseph was already looking at adult pornography online, but his parents would never have guessed as much. Autistic teenagers can remain childlike in their interests and emotional affect, even as they experience the same hormonal changes as their peers. Parents, who are scrambling to meet the demands of their child’s disability, often postpone discussions about sex.
Joseph didn’t have any friends to talk to about sex. He had crushes on girls, and wanted a relationship. But those things felt increasingly out of reach.
“It’s hard to kind of articulate my thoughts, but I had the feeling that I was different,” Joseph said last year. “I also had a feeling about my parents thinking that as well—that maybe I couldn’t have a relationship.”
The gap between his social development and that of his peers—who were beginning to date—was widening.
“I didn’t have the ability to relate to people,” he said. “In a way they didn’t understand me.”
Still, this was a good time in Joseph’s life. With a great deal of special education support, he transitioned back to his local public school. During his senior year, he made the dean’s list. After he graduated, he enrolled in a two-year computer-networking program at the local community college. Independence is the holy grail for the parents of children with disabilities, and Joseph’s parents allowed themselves to believe he might have a shot at it.
“To us he had overcome a big hurdle,” his father said. “And we felt ‘Yes, this kid can make it. He knows computers. He loves computers.’”


Assumption of Danger: Before computers created a direct portal to child pornography in every home with an internet connection, the federal government focused its enforcement efforts on those producing and profiting from the material. Prosecutions solely for possession of child pornography—which were relatively rare—generally concentrated on those people paying for the illicit images, with the understanding that their payment led directly to more child abuse.
Today, almost everyone charged with possession of child pornography downloaded the material online, free, through peer-to-peer networks that allow users to share files—movies, music, software—without a central server. The file-sharing networks also provide access to a vast collection of pornography, including images and videos of child sex abuse. Federal agents monitor these networks to search for the illicit material and trace specific images and videos to IP addresses.
Federal prosecutions for possessing and distributing child pornography increased from 77 cases in 1992 to more than 1700 cases in 2010, and the overwhelming majority of those arrested had no other criminal offense on their record.
A recent study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission tracked hundreds of offenders for eight and a half years after their release and found that only 3.6 percent were subsequently arrested for or convicted of a sexual “contact” offense such as rape or sexual assault of a minor or adult. The commission cautions that these numbers likely underestimate the number of contact offenses, as child sex abuse is severely underreported. But the results, which are reflected in other recent studies, challenge the assumption of danger that drives these prosecutions.
Advocates say that assumption may be especially problematic when it comes to autism. Child sex abuse often follows a period of manipulation that requires the perpetrator to exploit the feelings and vulnerabilities of his victim. But a central feature of autism is the inability to understand other people’s intentions.
Autistic people have a reduced capacity to place themselves in other people’s shoes, a symptom that used to be described as a lack of empathy.
“When someone says ‘lack of empathy,’ they are throwing people with Asperger’s in the same cauldron as sociopaths. Those are such different people,” said Lynda Geller, an autism clinician who evaluated Joseph. “They don’t pick up the social cues, but if you say ‘I’m mad’ or ‘I’m sad,’ they react, they care.”


One Man's Story

Nick Dubin was a familiar face on the autism speaker circuit and the author of three books about living with the disorder, so when he was arrested for possessing child pornography, the news circulated fast.
“Anyone with a Google news alert for autism, this story came up,” Dubin said. “It was like the world caved in on me in one moment.”
The notoriety meant that hiding was not an option. Instead, Dubin decided to share his experience in a book, “Autism, Sexuality, and the Law,” published in 2014. It remains one of the very few examinations of the issue, and has turned his parents, who contributed chapters, into a kind of emergency hotline for other families with autistic sons who have been charged with the same crime.
“I think there’s such shame that is involved—you see it when you talk to these families and you hear how isolated they become,” said Larry Dubin, Nick’s father. “It just separates you from the rest of life, from the rest of society.”
Dubin was 35 when he was arrested for downloading child pornography—photos and videos of prepubescent boys. He awoke at 6:30 in the morning to find federal agents with guns and flashlights standing over his bed. After four hours of interrogation, the agents called his father, a law professor in Detroit, who arrived to find his son in a fetal position on the couch.
Dubin was initially facing 8 to 10 years in prison. But after evaluations from forensic psychologists and autism clinicians concluded he was not a threat to children, prosecutors

agreed to reduce the sentence to five years’ probation and sex offender registration. The plea agreement cites the “effect that his autism has on his culpability, and absence of likelihood of reoffending.”
Dubin is shy, soft-spoken, and flushes easily. The hard-won progress he had made on the road to independence—his consulting job, his home, his ability to engage with the world—was erased on the day of his arrest. At 40, he is still trying to get back on his feet.
“There’s always a part of me that feels I should have known better, but the fact is, I didn’t,” he said. “After the fact, once it’s explained to you, it becomes obvious. How could I have not known that? But that’s where a lot of shame comes from.”
When Larry Dubin first began to research his son’s charges, he was shocked to find that autism clinicians were already aware of the issue.
“It never filtered down,” he said. “Everyone kind of knows about it, at some level, but it’s like a snowball that needs to roll down that hill.”
Some autism organizations have been hesitant to bring the issue to the forefront for fear the public will mischaracterize people with autism, already facing so many challenges, as potential sex offenders. But in the last few years, the calls from families have been mounting, and organizations across the country have been scrambling to respond.
Michelle Alkon, formerly with the Massachusetts-based Asperger/Autism Network, got so many calls on the issue she created a private online discussion group
for families.

“Ninety-five percent of the callers are parents or significant others, and they call after the federal authorities show up at the door,” she said.
Since his son’s arrest, Larry Dubin has become an advocate for increasing understanding of autism in the criminal justice


system and reducing punishments for certain sex offenses. His most recent effort—a book titled “Caught in the Web of the Criminal Justice System: Autism, Other Developmental Disabilities and Non-Contact Sex Offenses”—is due out this summer.
He said the families who call him describe sons who, like Nick, are socially and sexually immature and have never been on a date or had a sexual relationship. They are, he says, “the least likely people to ever want to harm a child. And these laws seem to view anyone who is charged with this offense to be likely to be hiding in a bush ready to attack the first child that goes by.”