According to social workers and activists, numerous young kids on the spectrum have ended up on the sexual offender registry for offenses that lacked sexual motivation.
Anthony*, a 14-year-old autistic boy, was making awkward overtures to his crush. Other kids thought the courtship was cute until, according to his attorney, Nicole Pittman of Impact Justice , Anthony got frustrated and sent his crush a picture of his genitals. "Parents flipped out," Pittman told Broadly, explaining that they requested authorities press charges against the teen. Now, Anthony is listed on the sex offender registry. He can no longer attend school or even be left alone in a room with his little brothers.
"As a person on the registry, you're considered a sex offender, and sex offenders can't be with children under the age of 17," Pittman explains. "In one moment he can be [Anthony] who is on the spectrum, but the minute this happens, all of that goes out the window and he becomes in people's eyes a predator—that's not the truth. That's not who these kids are. They are young kids on the spectrum."
Pittman has been defending children like Anthony for 12 years, and says there are still several thousand juveniles on the sex offender registry in the State of Michigan.
Some of these children were on the autism spectrum or struggling with disabilities, but most judges have refused to make exceptions, citing what Pittman describes as a "one size fits all" policy. Pittman, along with other lawyers and social workers, is fighting to change these laws and educate the public about the true cost of their unilateral enforcement.
Pittman identifies Michigan-based social worker Susan H. Rogers as a leader in the cause. Owner of the Parent Counseling and Consulting, PLC, Rogers began diving deeper into the problem 11 years ago, when she was asked to join the Professional Advisory Board for a Useful Registry in Michigan examining sex offender laws and their impact on disabled people and juveniles. "People on [a] sex offender registry don't get second chances," she told Broadly in a phone call. "'This person has a disability. We'll take them off the registry'—no, it doesn't happen like that."
"Most times with children there is no sexual [motivation]," Pittman explains, but "the moment the touching looks sexual, though, society labels them pedophiles." Rogers added that "it doesn't matter if a person is on the spectrum. They're going to be treated like any sex offender." When an autistic child pulls his pants down in a grocery store, Pittman explains, "We look at [the situation] from the lens [of] a 50 year old man [flashing people]."
Minors are not listed publicly on the sex offender registry, but they're forbidden from attending school because that's where children congregate. Once they turn 18, most states require them to register on the public sex offender list with an identifying photo. Children like Anthony would be identified as child pornography distributors for sending nude selfies, and required to disclose their status as a registered sex offender to any employers in some states. "There's a lot of homelessness and depression [because people can't get jobs]," Pittman explains. "We have a whole new generation of victims on this law."
Pittman has interviewed 500 registered kids. While only some were on the autism spectrum, she says all of them have been victims of abuse. "We are putting people on [a] registry who should be protected," she declares. Pittman believes that judges understand the problem but are reluctant to treat children with autism differently than adult offenders, recalling one judge who told her, "I understand what you're saying, but I'll be looked at as soft on sex offenders."
Police officers, on the other hand, seem more open to change, according to Pittman. She points to a Michigan boarding school where cops have made an effort to reduce conflict by asking for help communicating with children with autism. "Law enforcement is really seeing this happening and really want to get involved and say, 'These aren't the people who want to be on the registry,'" Pittman explains.
Michigan has pioneered the effort to change how authorities treat children with autism. For nearly 20 years, the 17th Circuit Court of Kent County has allowed children to plead to what D'Orio describes as a "a lesser, non-registerable offense." In 2011, Michigan passed an amendment to the Michigan Sex Offender Registry allowing children "who committed an offense under [the] age of 14" to be removed. "Six-year-olds were on it," Pittman recalls. "Three thousand children came off [the list that year]."
Pittman and Rogers agree that the biggest problems facing children with autism are misunderstandings about their behavior, especially when it comes to sexuality. According to Pittman, the US defunded research on childhood sexuality in 1950. "All the benchmarks we use are the 1950s, when there weren't [nude] selfies and what," she says. "We have no measures in this country to understand what normal childhood sexuality is."
Rogers hosts seminars where teens on the autism spectrum can ask dating questions, and instructs teachers and parents how to understand and communicate with autistic children. When asked how we might help keep children like Anthony from being unfairly labeled as sex offenders, Rogers responded, "Education, education, education."
*Name has been changed