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“Face of Looting” actually a face of system failure

2 March 2011

“Face of Looting” actually a face of system failure and lack of awareness.

Autism New Zealand Chief Executive Alison Molloy says that Arie Smith, the 25 year old young man with Asperger’s Syndrome who has been charged with looting after the Christchurch Earthquake, is not the face of looting. He represents a lack of awareness of autism and the failure of society to accommodate a diverse range of needs.

“Everyone is aware that the people of Christchurch have been through a devastating experience in the recent earthquake and that behaviour such as looting is not acceptable. This has been acknowledged by Arie’s family. However, we believe that the Earthquake should not be a reason for media to lose a sense of perspective by making Arie the scapegoat for all unacceptable behaviour in Christchurch.

Ms Molloy points out that a characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome is an almost obsessive interest in a hobby or collecton – such as light fittings in the case of Arie. Research also shows that for people with Asperger’s, the focus in terms of actions may not be linked to consequences – so while Arie might have been aware that what he was doing was wrong logically, he may not have connected his action to the possible consequence of being arrested.

Autism New Zealand is also very concerned that Arie has been imprisoned “without any help” and that threats of violence have been made against him without full knowledge of the circumstances.

“Arie Smith is the tip of a very large iceberg”, Ms. Molloy continued. “There are many people with Asperger’s Syndrome and other forms of ASD who are only receiving much needed support when they reach a criminal justice and state support system which is not equipped to meet their needs. This is an untenable situation.”

“But right now our focus should be on supporting people such as Arie Smith. He will be sitting in a prison cell scared, frightened and trying to figure out an incredibly complex social situation. Autism New Zealand wants to work with the justice system, Work and Income and Child, Youth and Family to support people on the spectrum and their families. But we also believe that all New Zealanders need to stop for a moment and consider the case of Arie Smith and the lack of awareness which caused him to be “the face of looting.”

“On a positive note, we wish to commend the New Zealand Herald and their reporter Jared Savage for going behind the dramatic headline and trying to understand the complexities of this situation. Factual reporting such as this goes a small way to increasing the awareness of autism which would be so useful in a case such as that of Arie Smith”, Ms. Molloy concluded.


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