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AUDIO: Ouch! roundtable - The Asperger hacker

by Ouch Team

10th August 2009

Asperger's mentor and trainer Robyn Steward joins the Ouch! Talk Show discussion panel this month to discuss the case of Gary McKinnon - the British hacker with asperger's syndrome who is set to be extradited to the US after a recent appeal to keep him in the UK failed in the high courts.

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MAT: British hacker, Gary McKinnon, has been in the news the last few weeks at the latest time of recording is that after years of fighting the High Courts have ruled that Mr McKinnon will indeed be extradited to the States to face trial for hacking into NASA and the pentagon computers regularly in 2001 and 2002. His supporters are anxious that the authorities are going, as it were, ‘throw the book’ at him and he could face up to 70 years in jail and the US are calling it the ‘biggest military computer hack ever.’ Whereas McKinnon says he was not acting maliciously and was looking for evidence that the US are in contact with UFOs and may have knowledge of clean fuel, energy systems that they’re keeping from the wider world.

LIZ: But the issue that they’re campaigning is that Gary has Asperger’s Syndrome which they say led to his obsessive behaviour and which will also make it much harder for him in jail miles from anywhere he knows should he be convicted. You’ve obviously... we’ve all been following this story in the press a lot ((0:00:50?)), you know, a lot of coverage. Charlie do you think the situation, do you think it’s right what’s happening.

CHARLIE: I think, for me it almost feels like the Asperger’s... the angle that the Asperger’s Syndrome that he’s got it seems that kind of complicated the case because he seems to have really kind of achieved nothing with his hacking that caused any damage to anyone at all and the case has been going on for quite a long time. I’ve been following it since the beginning. The fact that he has Asperger’s has become like a bigger and bigger part of it and I think it’s become like a major part of his legal defence. But in the end I think whether or not he had Asperger’s and I don’t think he’s done enough to warrant being extradited, that’s just my own point of view. And it just seem incredible that it’s been going on for so long and I believe he was genuinely looking for life, you know, extraterrestrial life out there and it’s just a real yeah it seems a shame that he’s not won this time.

MAT: But what about some people have got an opinion which is that oh how convenient that he starts talking about Asperger’s as a defence when at first apparently he wasn’t talking about it. I mean what’s going on there?

ROBYN: Well somebody was watching the TV and they saw the news story and she noticed, this woman noticed that Gary had some very autistic like traits and so she contacted Gary’s family and then Gary went to see one of the best known people within the autism world, Dr. Simon Baron Cohen, who’s related to Sacha Baron-Cohen...

MAT: We all about to say - any relation?

ROBYN: Yes he is I can’t remember if he’s a cousin or brother but one of the two.

MAT: I can imagine what the next film’s going to be about then, anyway go on.

ROBYN: So yes so he was tested and then he was tested by two other professionals and Asperger’s is a neurological condition so you can’t test it with a blood test or anything like that it’s through observation and through past experiences. So when you have the diagnostic tests done you have to bring somebody with you who knew you when you were a child. So it was verified by two other people and that’s how he got the diagnosis. That was a year ago so that’s why it wasn’t mentioned previously. And there are a lot of people within the National Autistic Society 2007 survey 59% of people didn’t get a diagnosis until later on. And one in three people with autism have accompanying mental health conditions due to lack of support and so a lot of people who are... The other thing is that Asperger’s is a new diagnosis it wasn’t known about until 1993. And the reason for that was because the paper was originally written in German so that meant that people got misdiagnosed with conditions like schizophrenia and other psychotic conditions and they got stuck in the mental health system, when actually they didn’t have a mental health condition at all.
Other people didn’t find out until they’d perhaps got to crisis point. For example, they might have been working and then they’ve just got to the point where they’ve felt that they can’t continue on with their life anymore and they’ve ended up in hospital. And then they’re tested for Asperger’s because it’s a crisis point and they need answers.
So it doesn’t surprise me that at his age, I think he’s in his 40s, that he’s just been diagnosed with Asperger’s and it doesn’t surprise me that it came now and the fact that someone else with Asperger’s noticed the traits and contacted the family I think gives it some legitimacy.

MAT: But legitimacy of Asperger’s or notwithstanding he knew it was illegal and he still did it.

ROBYN: Well sometimes people with Asperger’s they get really... they’re really obsessed with something an interest for him obviously it was UFOs and free energy, I can’t remember how he terms it.

MAT: Clean fuel energy systems.

ROBYN: Yeah that was his obsession and if you don’t know that an obsession can lead to dangers like this, like hacking, then you don’t know to make sure that that person has the right support. That probably if he’d had the support earlier on he would have been able to... this would have never happened because he’d have had the right support and so he’d have never gone as far as hacking into the pentagon and NASA.

LIZ: Emma, do you think that Gary should be tried for this crime?

EMMA: Well I think yes I do because he did he signed a confession he did do it, and I don’t know enough about his condition or him to know whether he knew it was wrong or whether he considered it wrong or not, but he did do it. But I mean I’m in the... I was doing some research last week obviously because I knew this was coming up and was chatting to people with Asperger’s and they were actually saying, a couple of people said to me that prison it would be a particularly, and more so, I mean prison is harrowing anyway, obviously, I’ve never been but you know what I mean but, you know, particularly hellish for someone with Asperger’s or on the autistic spectrum because of the way communication’s carried out and that you’re away from all your routines, you’re away from everything you know. So that’s one thing to look at.
Whether the Asperger’s should be involved in the case or not I mean I don’t actually know because I’m not a legal person and I don’t know enough about Asperger’s. But I do know that it’s very, very easy for us to sit here as a blind and a deaf person and a person with no thumbs is it Mat, and Liz wheelchair user as well, and say, you know, and say, “Oh, you know, of course you should know whether you’ve got a disability or not” or, you know, it’s late ((0:06:27?)) diagnosis and maybe it was convenient that the Asperger’s came up. But we have such obvious disabilities that we’re very lucky in that sense and I think, you know, to have a hidden disability or a disability that people don’t understand makes things so much more difficult and must do in the justice system as well.
So no actual answers for you Liz but that’s, you know, they’re the kind of things that I’m thinking about in relation to this case.

LIZ: Yeah. No it’s not it’s a difficult one. I mean, Robyn, what about you do you think he, you know, he should be charged for anything or, you know, and serve time for anything whether in the UK or in the States or do you think not at all that he should be let off?

ROBYN: No I don’t think he should be let off but I do think that his Asperger’s should be taken into consideration because it affects every part of your life. Everybody’s different, I don’t know Gary myself and I don’t know his family and, obviously, I’m not a legal person and this is just my own opinion, but I think it’s incredibly important that people that their Asperger’s taken into consideration.
For example, this is a very common scenario, I often work with children who are in a last year of primary school, and the school will phone me up round about kind of February time and they’ll say, “Oh we’ve got this child in Year 6 and they were perfectly good up until Year 6, they’ve got very good grades but there’s some behavioural issues and, you know, there’s some kind of you know big differences now that they know they’re going up to high school.” And I’ll start working with them, and it’s seems that they get very stressed about moving up to high school and that actually a bit of extra support means that those negative behaviours reduce. They weren’t there until that person was getting very stressed out, and then once they get the right support then things were a lot easier for them. So they’re still moving up to high school, they’re still, you know, doing the things that they need to do but they’ve just got the right support in place. So I think it’s really important that Gary has the right support in place so that he can be part of society just like all of us.

LIZ: Thank you everybody for contributing in this discussion. Robyn, Charlie, Emma thank you so much.
Emma Tracey, Robyn Steward and Charlie Swinbourne
The Roundtable Panel
Bringing her knowledge as someone with asperger's, Robyn talks intelligently about how Gary is likely to have got into the difficult situation he now finds himself in.

The roundtable panel this month is: Robyn Steward, Emma Tracey and Charlie Swinbourne. Each with different impairments, do they agree or differ in their opinion? Robyn has asperger's, Emma is blind and Charlie is hard of hearing.

Mat Fraser and Liz Carr chair the debate.

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