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Prison Reform Trust report on planning services for people with learning disabilities and/or autism who sexually offend.

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Sex offenders with autism

A new report jointly published earlier this week (10 April 2018) by the Prison Reform Trust and University of Leeds, examines sexual offending amongst people with learning disabilities and/or autism.

Building on an expert, multi-sector seminar held in 2017, this new report provides a stimulus for further discussion, looking at the challenges faced both by the individuals themselves and the professionals and practitioners who work with them, suggesting practical ways forward and recommendations for improving outcomes.

The report explores some of the reasons why people with learning disabilities and/or autism may get into trouble over an alleged sexual offence. At times their actions may be influenced by factors that are similar to those affecting non-disabled offenders, such as lack of empathy, poor impulse control, or attachment problems. However other reasons that are particular to the experiences of people with learning disabilities and/or autism may include a lack of opportunity for appropriate sexual expression; limited knowledge about sex and sexuality; and cognitive distortions or poor understanding of the social sanctions attached to sexual offending.

Several local, regional and national authorities and multi-agency partnerships have overlapping responsibilities for their health and wellbeing, and the array of support agencies can be confusing and hard to access—both for the individuals themselves and family members seeking help on their behalf. 

The report concludes that an effective response to people with learning disabilities and/or autism who sexually offend requires professional health, social care and justice services to integrate support. It recommends that a focus on prevention and early intervention would improve outcomes for individuals, make communities safer and reduce the number of victims, and lessen the high cost of crisis intervention and secure care or imprisonment.

The report makes a number of recommendations, some of the principal ones are summarised below:

  • Education and learning about sex and relationships for children with learning disabilities and/or autism should be included in the curriculum from a young age, and reinforced throughout their statutory education.
  • Effective specialist community-based forensic support should be delivered to meet the needs of people with a learning disability and/or autism.
  • Family members should be involved and encouraged to share concerns about any sexually inappropriate behaviour.
  • A whole system approach is critical.
  • Services need to be co-designed with the active participation of people with autism and/or learning disabilities.
  • Health and justice agencies should collaborate to agree a suite of shared, evidence-based interventions and treatment options for use in the community, and in secure and custodial settings.
  • People with learning disabilities and/or autism who commit offences should not be treated less favourably by the combined criminal justice, health and social care systems. There are currently people detained in hospital for longer periods than they would have spent in prison, with no discernible clinical purpose or therapeutic benefit.
  • Commissioners of liaison and diversion services, working together with the police, should ensure that all suspects are screened for learning disability and autism.
  • Further research is needed to better understand the vulnerability and criminogenic factors of individuals with autism who display inappropriate sexual behaviour and sexually offending behaviour, including sensory needs, levels of anxiety, and general autism profile.



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