Autism and Forensics: An Interview with Dr. Laurie Sperry

Dr. Laurie Sperry has been active in the fields of autism services and research for decades. Learn about how she has taken personal action to address the incredible needs of autistic individuals who find themselves engaged with the criminal justice system.

a close up a smiling white women with shoulder length red curly hair, wearing a black shirt
          Image from Dr. Sperry

  Laurie, can you please introduce yourself?

 My name is Dr. Laurie Sperry, I’m a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with a degree in        forensic psychology and criminal investigation. I first got into the field of autism when I was in high school. The school I attended required internships. I had an opportunity to volunteer in a swim class that included children with autism. It was kind of love at first sight, I knew I wanted to work with people with autism, so I became a teacher. As my career progressed, I became a state level consultant supporting parents, teachers and students with autism.  I eventually went back to school for my PHD and became a state director of autism services.  I was awarded a Fulbright and had an academic appointment in Australia to support capacity building in autism services through teacher training. I’ve been fortunate to work in academia, maintain a research agenda as well as continuing a clinical practice.

How were you introduced to the field of behavior analysis?

Back in college in the 80’s we called it behavior modification, there was a class I had to take in my undergraduate program. That was my first introduction. I was really attracted to the idea that there was a science behind improving challenging behavior.

How did you become interested in forensics? And let’s start by defining the field of forensics for those that may not be familiar with that term.

Strictly speaking forensics is the application of science to criminal and civil law during a criminal investigation.

I became interested in forensics about 10 or 12 years ago. I started getting calls from families whose children I knew when they were young.  These parents would say “my child has just been arrested; can you help us?” I realized I knew very little about the criminal justice system. It immediately occurred to me there would be vulnerabilities that a person with autism would face when they are caught up in the criminal justice system

I went back to school and got a degree in forensic psychology. I then started presenting about forensics and autism at different conferences. At one of the conferences a professor from Yale, introduced himself, we both thought we were the only people looking into this topic. We started the autism forensics team at Yale with another colleague, a clinical psychologist, several years ago. This group has just grown and grown. We are now an international organization, all looking at the intersection of the criminal justice system and autism and the vulnerabilities this group experiences.

What does your forensic work with autistic adults include?

I’m typically working with adults.  When they end up in prison and their attorney notices that there is something different about their client, or that their client may need special accommodations. Sometimes there is a really astute attorney, and they directly ask me to come in and evaluate their client. My work includes post-conviction/post-arrest diagnostics, I do those in jails where the individual may be being held awaiting trial. Sometimes the diagnostics are conducted post-conviction, it may confirm a diagnosis or be an initial diagnosis. Sadly, many do not have access to this support. The prevalence rate of people with disabilities in prison is not always clear.

In addition to diagnostics, I also conduct a forensic interview, a protocol I use to get at their understanding of the offense they have committed, what was their understanding of the legality, or the illegality of their offense was BEFORE they were caught.

One of the things that is really heartbreaking to me is when I ask them “How did you learn that rule or that law?” The individual I’m interviewing typically states “I learned the rules by breaking them, or, I learned about the rule when I got caught.” We as professionals have to do a better job of teaching these rules and laws proactively and we must have very frank discussions about what happens when these laws are broken.  We are duty bound to do this.

I compile all my information into a report, and it is entered into evidence. The purpose behind the report and my expert witness testimony is not to give anyone a free pass on illegal behavior. We cannot say that because of autism a person is not responsible, but we have to help courts, attorneys, judges, juries understand the components of autism that might have been implication in the commission of the offense.  Typically, the reports are utilized to advocate for mitigation, especially post-conviction during sentencing. I ask sentencing professionals to look at this through the lens of somebody with autism. If we can look at it through this lens, it does not diminish the pain of the victim or the consequences to society. It is just a different way of looking at the offense. I am often called upon to give expert witness testimony which entails explaining my report and discussing my interactions with the person accused of the offense.

Upon invitation, at conferences I speak to attorneys, psychiatrists and at legal conferences I welcome the opportunity to educate. I also have created a partnership with a local police force, and they attend my social skills groups for teens and adults who are at risk or have committed offenses. I also educate their crisis response teams. There’s incredible value in creating these partnerships between ABA agencies and local police. I am a regular speaker at schools of law, educating future attorneys.

How could behavior analysts who are interested in forensics explore this career pathway?

In terms of career pathways, formal education and training in forensics psychology or criminal investigation is necessary. If you are interested in gaining additional information the National Center for Criminal Justice and Disability has excellent content.

What is the last take-away that you would like readers to know?

We have to do better, and we have to be proactive. If the only part of my job was after the fact, after somebody had gotten arrested or charged or was sitting in prison, that would leave me feeling hopeless.  What I’m hopeful about is the potential for ABA to change behavior proactively through things like DRI, DRA – teaching social skills that allow people to create the good lives that they want. Start social skills groups for teens and young adults. People are often so socially isolated; their world gets smaller and smaller and becomes one that is online and virtual – it is so easy for folks to get radicalized and access illegal images that lead to their arrest.

“We need to be creating social opportunities for teens and young adults, so they have the skills they need to access the lives they want.”