(14 mins) In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman continues his conversation with criminal defense attorney and autism expert Carol S. Weinman, Esq., C.A.S.. Carol is a former Prosecutor and has been a criminal defense attorney and family lawyer for over 25 years. She focuses her law practice on special education and specializes in advocating for the interests of those with autism. Ms. Weinman is recognized as an autism expert and legal consultant, author, mediator, trainer and nationwide speaker on autism. She is passionately committed to educating others worldwide about understanding the autistic brain and behavior, and how autism plays a role in the commission of criminal offenses and inappropriate behavior. Carol discusses understanding perspectives in fighting for the “underdog”, neurodiversity in the prison system, and the importance of spreading awareness of autism.
For more about Carol: www.weinmanlawoffice.com
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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. I have the pleasure today again returning to us of speaking with the former prosecutor Carol Weinman down Philadelphia way who defends and advocates for those of us whose brains are a bit different on the autism spectrum with criminal defense and so many other things that she’s going to tell you about, carol welcome again to exploring different brains
CAROL WEINMAN (CW): Thank you it’s really a pleasure to be here today with you, Hackie
HR: What is the biggest single thing that you would think a relative layperson like me or our audience our different brains audience, might not know about the legal system that you can explain to us
CW: Okay, I think the greatest thing, that’s a very good question, I think the greatest thing for you and other people to understand about that is, that from the perspective of the criminal system, if somebody commits a criminal offense they’re main objective and concern is, is this a person that we can safely have out in our community and out in our society is it safe, so often times they will initially say I don’t really want to know why the person did it that’s not my concern I want to know whether I have to be worried that this person is not going to be someone that out in the community is safe to have out there are they going to do it again are they someone that we can’t teach or rehabilitate to not do this for whatever reason they initially did it so they’re concern is basically we’ve got to keep people safe, and so that is what sometimes what people that I’ve dealt with its very easy and I can also get caught in this if I’m not careful sometimes it’s very easy when you’re rooting for the underdog and you understand this different brain to side with the person that is suffering from the disorder but you have to also be able to appreciate the role on the other side and what their concern is and be able to address that to get them to feel comfortable that this person isn’t going to be someone they have to worry about and someone that they have to put in a prison cell
HR: Well, that leads me into another thing, within the prison system what was alarming to me what I learned through my interview with William Packard and doing some reading not that I’m any kind of expert at all but is that the average prison population, the huge percentage of individuals who are incarcerated who’ve got some kind of different brain, okay, autism spectrum being among them but a lot of other stuff, also the number of the correctional staff that are on the spectrum and also have additional issues which is kind of a preselected group who go into or become corrections officers in prisons per-say, I’m not saying that in a negative way at all but I wonder the people you defend are one subset and then the people on the spectrum within the prison system themselves are another subset do you have any experience with those within the prison system
CW: I have not visited that yet in terms of staff being on the autism spectrum
HR: Or the inmates also, I mean do you have experience with them
CW: Oh my goodness yes, oh yeah, that’s what I’m saying they’re well some of my clients have been, I shouldn’t say that none of my clients have ended up in prison but I did represent and I was a legal consultant on a case where unfortunately he was sentenced much fewer years than he would’ve seen had I not testified but he still was sent to prison but to answer your question hackie I have been approached by a lot of individuals as I said that were at the end of their cases so they are in prison they contacted me from prison or they contacted me through somebody else because they’re in prison their parents or whatever there are many, many individuals that are inmates that are on the autism spectrum I don’t even think- I know- a lot of them have not even been identified yet they were probably just considered behavior issues or discipline problems in terms of the issue for men to divert from autism but more in terms of people that are mentally ill it’s a really interesting journey I’ve had I started out in having a lot of empathy for those people when I was a prosecutor and I didn’t like what I was seeing in terms of those going through the system so I also have represented people with mental illness from the defense side and you know the same way that they don’t belong in prison, people with autism don’t belong in prison but there are a lot of people in prison on the autism spectrum and again that’s another part of something that I am completely passionate and committed to, part of my work is going into the prisons and talking to the inmates and it’s an area that needs a lot of work, and the other thing- I’m sorry hackie let me just say something also that I feel very passionate about since we’re talking about prisons these individuals not only don’t fare well in prisons because of all their social skill ineptness which gets them in a lot of trouble with correctional officers that don’t have any tolerance for that and what they may see as being rude or insolent but sadly for that reason a lot of these inmates end up getting put into solitary confinement because they’re put up for infractions so there’s a lot of problems with this and some really tragic outcomes
HR: Is it uniform throughout the country there are mental health courts? Or that’s just geographical in nature?
CW: Well, there are mental health courts. I can’t say there are mental health courts in every state. I can’t speak to that, because I don’t know that. That can vary. However, to qualify, I do not see, I do not perceive individuals on the autism spectrum as going through the mental health courts. That’s where the distinction is, and that’s where some of the issues are that we need to visit and change.
HR: Would it be to the benefit of you and your clients to be seen in a mental health court?
CW: Well, the best way I can answer that is that the way that the mental health courts are set up now, I would have to say no, because they are structured for people with mental illness. That is very different, and for this reason. First of all, what makes population so challenging is that we call it a spectrum, autism spectrum, because people fall anywhere within that spectrum. Different from someone with bipolar disorders, for example, or schizophrenia, which may be a little more exact in terms of how it’s treated, in terms of symptoms. People in the autism spectrum, there’s a saying that’s quoted by Dr. Stephen Shore: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” That’s what makes this so challenging, from my perspective, too, because I have to educate the judge and the courts and the attorneys that this individual has to be looked at uniquely. I have a very holistic approach that I take with clients. I have to look at the entire picture. I have to look at the whole person because there are so many things that play into the behavior of this particular person, and more so to how this particular person’s brain works. There are certain characteristics that are often more of a common denominator along people in the autism spectrum, but that’s where it stops. There really is a variability, and that’s why it’s considered a spectrum, and that’s what is going to make this area very challenging, and why I think it’s so to have people like myself out there advocating directly for them, so that I can address that particular issue on a particular set of facts and on a particular case.
HR: Is there a specialty being offered at any law school by having you teach that, or is that not…
CW: Is what being offered in law school? I’m sorry.
HR: An educational pathway like in orthopedic surgery. I’m an orthopedic surgeon, so after I do my 6 year residency in orthopedics, if I want to specialize in, say, spine surgery, I can go somewhere and study just spines for a couple of years. If someone wanted to do just what you’re doing, is there an educational pathway or is there a fellowship, or they would just have to follow you around? I mean, how does it work when you’re one-of-a-kind?
CW: I think it’s analogous to any pioneer in any field. When Albert Einstein started, it sounds funny, but I have learned from doing this is that I’m a pioneer. I’m in a field that is brand-new. Truthfully, it found me. What happened is people kept knocking on my door until I got the indication that this is what I need to be doing because there’s such a need for it. There is no one, there is no education for this. I guess the best way for me to explain it is that the reason it is such a specialty niche and what makes me unique is that you can have psychologists, for example, Hackie, be expert witnesses, which is often the way in the past it has been done, so you’ll get a psychologist who may test for autism and know autism to a degree, but first of all, autism’s relatively new. So they don’t totally even, they may be able to diagnose it, doesn’t mean that they intimately understand it. What I think makes me different is that first of all, I raised a child with autism and I don’t think there’s any better education than that. Secondly, I understand the criminal system inside-out. What makes me different from somebody from another discipline with expertise is that I really understand how it works and how to talk to lawyers because I know the behind-the-scenes stuff that takes place in the courtroom. I know the ins and outs of a criminal case, so it’s become a very interesting, unique niche. I’m not saying that somebody may never be able to do what I do, but I think it’s a very difficult, intangible thing to do to really teach somebody. I hope to do that more, but I think it’s challenging to teach someone to have the depth of knowledge that I, right now, have in both the areas of criminal law and in autism. I don’t profess to be a doctor. I don’t diagnose. What I do is I take the evaluations that are done of these individuals and I look at the picture and then I look at the criminal offense, and I’m able to tie the two together to explain what happened.
HR: Carol for our audience, how can they get in touch with you?
CW: They can visit my website at weinmanlawoffice.com. They can email me there at firstname.lastname@example.org, and there’s also a contact form on my website and a phone number
HR: Carol, is there anything that we haven’t covered here that you’d like to cover?
CW: I don’t know that we haven’t covered it I just cannot emphasize enough that this population whether it be, and again I do a lot of work in the criminal system, whether it be there or in special education or whether it even be a child who’s a part of a custody dispute I can’t emphasize enough that if you are dealing with somebody with autism spectrum disorder they need to be viewed differently just as you know with all the work you do with different brains we have to become more cognoscente and more sensitive to the fact that their brains are different and that causes them to do things differently to think differently to appear differently and the biggest thing I really want to leave people with is that when you’re dealing with someone with autism what you see is not what it often appears to be
HR: Carol Weinman, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much again for coming back and being a guest on Exploring Different Brains.
CW: My pleasure, Hackie. I’m really committed to this work and to the work that you do and to raising the awareness on this issue.