Autistic Christchurch Earthquake Looter

Christchurch Earthquake 22/02/11

Image by geoftheref via Flickr

This morning as I scanned my Facebook feed – catching up on my friends’ most recent activities and opinions – I came across something that quite literally made my heart ache.

A friend had put up a link to a news story about a Christchurch looter; someone who had looted a quake striken home after the major earthquake of last week. This looter had become the “face of looting”, and had been treated harshly by the court to “send a message” to other looters. (By the sounds of the news report, he may have also been treated harshly by some vigilantes, since he appeared in court with a black eye.) There has been a lot of understandable outrage at the looters, taking money, jewelery and valuables from people who have already lost so much.

This man stole a light-fitting and two light-bulbs.

My friend was outraged at the news story which explained that this man had autism and other unspecified mental disabilities, my friend’s words were as follows:

This is bullcrap. Gary Numan has asbergers too, and he doesn’t steal stuff, he makes cool music with synthesizers. An inability to read human emotion and respond to it does not make you a thief. Being a thief makes you a thief.

We’ll ignore the mis-spelling since that is the least of the offences here. My response was:

“An inability to read emotion and respond to it” doesn’t sum up Aspergers either. Autism is very complex, and having uncontrollable obsessions is part-and-parcel with it. Huge clue: He stole lightbulbs. Not money. Not things he can on-sell: Light-bulbs. Stealing is not acceptable, regardless of mental condition, absolutely. But please don’t compare him to someone else who has Aspergers and then dismiss the poor man as evil, that’s far too simplistic.

I want to use my own blog to add further comment to those points.

Part of the problem with the public’s understanding of autism, is how much autism differs from person to person. There are the same underlying categories of impairment, but the way it manifests and the severity differs, meaning you can’t simply compare one autistic person to another and use that as a basis for moral judgment.

We also need to take into account that the other mental disabilities weren’t specified; we simply do not know everything that this poor man was living with.

Then there’s the question of the impact of the quake itself, on someone who requires routine, predictability, and struggles with new situations. It’s hard to have your world turned upside down for anyone, all the harder for someone who has disabilities. If this man was anything like my autistic son, he would have turned to his obsessions as a source of comfort and calm, and wouldn’t have been able to control it in such a stressful situation. (I’ve previously written about my son’s current obsession, in a post about clocks. I could easily imagine him collecting them in the same this man did his light fixtures.)

This doesn’t mean theft is OK if done by mentally disabled people. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished, corrected, and held to account. (Unless the person was mentally insane thus affecting their mens rea, but that’s not the extreme we’re talking about here as far as I can tell). But it sure as hell does mean they shouldn’t be held up as “the face of looting”, or held up as an example of how harshly the law will treat quake looters.

I could imagine my own son, as an adult man, living his life as best he can, following all the lessons I’d taught him, being totally thrown by something as life-shattering as a major earthquake. I don’t think he’d cope well, no, I know he wouldn’t cope well. I would expect him to turn to his obsessions for comfort and calm. I would hope that if he did, the law and the courts would take his disabilities into account in sentencing. And I would hope that people wouldn’t publicly comment about him in the way my friend did on Facebook.

I’m not mad about this, just sad, because I am yet again reminded of how the struggles of our children are made so much worse by the poor understanding of autism, and the prejudices which go along with that misunderstanding.

[Edit: My friend has since taken down his comment about the news story, which is great.]

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7 Responses to Autistic Christchurch Earthquake Looter

  1. Angela says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this-as the mother of a 17 year old chap with autism, my heart just broke when I read this article this morning. Where was this man’s support when he was arrested-surely it would have been obvious by the nature of what he stole that he was a bit “special”-heck the light bulbs he took wouldn’t even have worked as Christchurch had no power! You wonder if on top of his obsession for light fixtures , he took lightbulbs from another house as his own were not working and he thought someone else’s might? Sigh-of course stealing is wrong-but I wonder what my son might take-not into clocks like your boy -probably wouldn’t be averse to someone’s Sesame Street toys and dvds!

  2. Emily says:

    I don’t know a lot about autism but unless autistic people are completely incapable of being taught right from wrong then no excuses please.

    If autism genuinely removes a person’s ability to differentiate acceptable from harmful behaviour then ignore this comment – no reference to your son and no personal insult intended.

    • That comment turns on what you mean by “excuses”.

      The law – quite rightly – takes into account someone’s intention when it decides on culpability, particularly at the point of sentencing. To take someone with a mental disability (and you will note further from my post and the news article – exactly what other mental disabilities the man had are left unstated), and hold them out as “the face of looting” and give them a harsh sentence to send a message to other looters, is unjustified, and indeed cruel. As I said in my post too, the severity of autism, and the way it manifests, differs remarkably from person to person. Without knowing more about the man, it is hard to make a sweeping statement about how his autism affects him. Autism impacts on someone’s ability to communicate, and therefore comprehension. Autistic people have to be taught to understand social interactions that come naturally to the rest of us (my 14 month old shows mastery in social areas that we are still trying to teach our autistic five year old). Autism is relevant to what this man did, but without the specifics of his diagnosis I can not state just how much it impacted. But I do know it was relevant to sentencing and public humiliation.

      I do appreciate your comment, but it sounds like not only do you not understand autism (which you admit to, that is fine), but you also do not understand how the law operates. I’ve tried to expand on that somewhat in this reply to your comment. If you’d like me to elaborate – specifically about the concept of mens rea and the relevance of mitigating circumstances to sentencing – then let me know and I’ll comment further.

    • Leanne Glynn says:

      I’m sorry to say this, but if you don’t know anything about autism, then keep your comments to yourself.

      My son is 5 and he has highly functional autism (which means he is capable of day to day tasks), but even with this we still have to teach him more intense social and behavioural skills than you would a neuro typical child. If his routine is thrown out of place he tends to do things that people don’t understand unless they know autism/asperger’s.
      We don’t know the severity of this man’s autism, but a massive thing like the earthquake would have been absolutely disruptive to his self control.

      That is all part of autism and autistic people react to shock differently than neuro typical people. Please keep that in mind.

      • Bravo Leanne.

        I tried for a polite reply to Emily, but considering the lack of thought that had gone into her comment, I really should have just replied along the same vein that you have: “I’m sorry to say this, but if you don’t know anything about autism, then keep your comments to yourself..”

        I don’t go around forums about other disabilities that I don’t understand, and tell the affected families that the condition is “no excuse” for various behaviours. That would be pointless, uninformed, unhelpful, and potentially down-right mean. I was quite upset by Emily’s comment, I’m glad you said what I should have.

  3. Julie says:

    Right now this story is news again as the trial progresses. There is a lot about the crime. It is upsetting that he was not just found with items he took, but from what I understand with tools to do this also- this indicates that it was premeditated. I want to hear more from him. What does he have to say? I want to know if he understands right from wrong as I am sure he does. I want him to admit he has done wrong and to understand that people who do wrong have an obligation to face consequences. Now I am not sure that jail is the right consequence in this case, but something that teaches the lesson of making right your wrongs. Also I want to know who is responsible for him? Why was he out there? Did he think like other looters and see an opportunity to take advantage? I think what we are missing here is his story and I do not think that any decision can be made without it.

    • Hi Julie,

      From what I understand, there was another man with him. For all we know the idea of the theft and the tools belonged to the other man. Again, we’ll have to wait on more details. He is not a career criminal; apparently this was his first issue in front of the courts.

      Knowing right from wrong is different from being able to control one’s actions. If his mental state was disturbed by a combination of his existing condition (Aspegers, including compulsive tendencies), and the unstabling situation of the earthquake (which would severely impact on any autistic person since they require routine and already frequently suffer from anxiety), then his mental state at the time is directly relevant to his culpability. You may have noticed from the curret news reports that the opinion of a forensic psychiatrist has gone towards the not-guilty plea. Again, more details should emerge over time.

      In the meantime, demonising or condemning him is pointless and cruel, but many people are doing just that. With-holding judgment, and in the meantime trying to understand the challenges this man faces, is the compassionate response, and the one I have chosen to take.

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