Memorandum submitted by Dr Helen Pearce[1] (MH 70)


Case Study of Someone with Autism who Engages in Computer Hacking


YM is a person who has come to the attention of several clinicians working in the areas of autism and ASD. YM does not have a 'learning disability' according to definitions based on IQ. YM is academically able. YM shows impairments within the three domains:


1) Patterns of communication

2) Reciprocal social interactions and

3) Restricted, repetitive and stereotyped behaviours and interests.


YM has a particular interest in computers. YM has a very good ability with computers. One of the difficulties that has occurred is in relation to computer security. YM considers that if computers can be hacked into, then there is no reason why they should not be hacked into. It is seen by YM as a fault of the system or company if the security cannot prevent a person hacking into private files that are supposed to be restricted.


YM has no ability to consider the point of view of other people in relation to this matter. YM does not recognise any detrimental consequences of such actions, or any negative impact as a result of these actions. YM feels this is a helpful service. YM considers that if he can hack into a computer system, then he should. YM does this with no authority or consent given from the individual or institution whose files have been accessed. YM is bright and able, and believes that the action taken of hacking is 'right' and appropriate.


YM shows rigidity of thought and a complete lack of ability to consider anybody else's perspective. YM lacks mentalising ability in relation to this. YM lacks theory of mind, or the ability to put self in another person's shoes. It is autism that causes YM to have such rigidity and inflexibility of thought. It is YM's interest in computers, and the challenge that their security systems pose that leads him to hack into them, and it is the autism that causes YM to have no ability to consider the impact of this. YM and people like YM can represent a danger. If YM has a set idea and considers that the hacking represents behaviour that is socially responsible. In fact this behaviour is intrusive and inappropriate, and indeed may be dangerous. YM and similar individuals may mis-read social cues.


The difficulty in this case is that the issues appear very clear, and black and white. Much of the time these issues are graded, and not quite so clear. If there is appropriate management within a specialist setting then risks may be effectively be reduced. Inappropriate placement, inadequate supervision, and insufficiently resourced attempts to promote inclusion can result in increased risk.


Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder. Rigidity and inflexibility of thought is one way that autism is manifest. No person committing an offence should be able to consider the diagnosis of autism as a way of not having to face consequences. If no action is taken in such cases then a person with ASD will not learn that their actions were wrong or inappropriate. YM and individuals like YM need consequences to understand and learn that the action of hacking is considered to be wrong. However, prison may not be the appropriate environment for that learning to take place. If a court feels that a hospital order is more appropriate where psycho-social, educational and if appropriate medical intervention can be provided the law must permit it to make a hospital order. It is important that these interventions may be provided - preferably before such a case even reaches the criminal justice system - by use of the Mental Health Act.


In my opinion the actions of YM represent 'seriously irresponsible conduct'.


May 2007


[1] Psychiatrist (Specialist Registrar) trained in Learning Disability and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry with particular expertise in Autism and ASD.