Autism Within the Criminal Justice System
October 12, 2022
By: Haley Moss
OAR sat down with Haley Moss to get her perspective on safety, criminal justice, and autism. Haley Moss is an attorney, author, advocate, artist, and consultant. Diagnosed with autism when she was 3 years old, Moss now uses her personal and professional experience to bring insight and perspective on neurodiversity and inclusion to a broad range of audiences, including those in the legal profession.
OAR: What inspired you to study law and what was your experience as an autistic student at law school?
Moss: I honestly didn’t grow up thinking I would be a lawyer. I was very introverted, and at one point, wanted to go to med school. Unfortunately, freshman year of college, chemistry and the sciences weren’t where my passions were. When I thought about what I actually enjoyed, that was mostly writing, speaking, and helping others — all things lawyers do.
I entered law school when I was 21, so I did not have the same life experiences as my mostly older peers. I felt a constant need to prove myself as competent. My law school also denied all my accommodation requests, and I didn’t have the self-advocacy skillset (or lawyer skillset) that I do now. I am a lot kinder to younger me now, and I am proud I survived and thrived as best I could in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment without all the support I needed. While I criticize my law school and legal education often, that does not take away from how grateful I am for the privilege of attending (and the scholarship I received) my law school’s public interest programming, and the personal and professional growth and opportunities.
I am confident so much is better for today’s autistic, neurodivergent, and disabled law students, not just at my school but nationwide.
OAR: Do you have advice for prospective autistic students interested in entering the field of law?
Moss: One thing I am glad exists now that didn’t when I was in law school: The National Disabled Law Students Association and its corresponding Facebook group, Law School Disability Advocacy Coalition. They’re fantastic resources, communities, and ways to meet like-minded people in similar situations.
My advice is to advocate for yourself, and be kind to yourself. Don’t be afraid to fight for the accommodations that you need to succeed; it’s one of my biggest regrets. I do not consider surviving three years of law school and a bar exam without accommodations to be a badge of honor but more of a sad reflection of how the legal education system failed me into thinking I was ineligible, unworthy, or undeserving of support. Being kind to my younger self for her strength and perseverance is something I am getting better at doing rather than beating up on her for not advocating more frequently.
OAR: What are some positive experiences and challenging experiences you’ve had working as an autistic lawyer?
Moss: I love the problem-solving aspect of law practice and the client interactions. Having someone trust you with extremely pressing issues in their lives is such a precious thing. One of the first clients I interacted with as a student was a young woman with epilepsy, and when she would call us, I would patiently answer her questions in a way she would easily understand. I remember her telling me she trusted me, it’s something I always held dear.
I also felt like I always had to overcome this presumption of incompetence — that I deserved to take up the same space in the profession, to be treated equally. A lot of that was at the intersections of sexism and ableism, if you ask me. Our profession (and its highest ranks especially) is largely male-dominated, and “fitness to practice” is a phrase thrown around quite a bit.
OAR: In your consulting related to neurodiversity and workplace inclusion, what do you find are the most significant challenges for employers and autistic employees? Do you see signs of progress? If so, in what aspects?
Moss: There’s way too much to unpack in this question but most of it to me is systemic issues, like job descriptions, interviews, hiring practices, etc. It is very difficult to reform an entire systemic overnight but I am hopeful that those who are implementing best practices and revolutionizing the field will continue to do so.
We often ignore that our workplaces are already neurodiverse. We need to support existing and current neurodivergent talent with mentorship, opportunity, growth, and safety to be themselves. That’s a lot of where my focus is nowadays.
OAR: In many ways you are both a trailblazer and inspiration for autistic individuals. Who and what inspires you?
Moss: I am inspired and energized by the disability advocates who came before me, and those around me. No one does this work alone. I am also just inspired by everyday people doing great things, and that there is beauty everywhere in our world if only you stop to look or appreciate what’s surrounding you.
Haley Moss is an attorney, author, advocate, artist, and consultant. Diagnosed with autism when she was 3 years old, Moss now uses her personal and professional experience to bring insight and perspective on neurodiversity and inclusion to a broad range of audiences, including those in the legal profession. You can check out her website here.