About a month ago, I got a jury summons. I freaked out, because I’d never gotten one before, and didn’t know what to do, and I’m terrified of the telephone, so I had to show up on the day of duty. Now, I don’t know who they’re fooling! I would be a TERRIBLE juror. Talk about sensory and social overload. 8 hours a day in a courtroom being verbally bombarded by extremely disturbing facts, evidence, etc, all designed to make you see one person’s side of the story, then listen to the opposite side give another side of the story, probably all the while, disputing everything the other side just tried to say? God that sentence didn’t even make much sense! Plus once the trial was over, I’d have to spend hours locked in a room with 11 other NTs and their loudness and hyper verbal activities, discussing everything that had been said during the case, and attempt to come to a decision. NO WAY could I function in that situation. I can barely discuss things I know about in groups of 3-5 people who I am familiar with! 12 strangers, an extremely stressful situation, all new, conflicting information? Well if I hadn’t already had a major meltdown, I would most certainly not be functioning properly. But that isn’t, apparently, a valid excuse for not showing up for jury duty.
So this morning, I made my way to the courthouse, armed with books, my Rubik’s cube, my laptop, and several papers I needed to read for class, along with a bunch of snacks, and a small stuffed animal for comfort. I was also armed with 4 copies of a letter (which is at the bottom of this post), explaining my difficulties and why I would not make a fair, responsible juror. I intended to use it if I shut down and lost speech, which happens rarely, but I felt like it might happen in this sort of situation.
I went to the nice officials and once again pleaded my case for discounting me from jury duty. I was so terrified of talking to them that I probably screwed it up badly, but they said it was not a valid excuse and that the judge would have to make that call for himself. So I found a seat in a corner of the big orientation room and listened to the orientation. Thank goodness for my Rubik’s cube – it made a wonderful stim toy for my hands to move around. I was completely off in stimmy-land, with my brain fighting incredibly hard to NOT go there, because I didn’t want to cause trouble. But rocking, tapping, and lots of solving and scrambling of my cube were happening. And it was all I could do to not melt or shut down completely.
A little more than an hour later, I was called in the second group of people to go to a trial room. So we all walked up there and waited some more. Then we were called into the courtroom. I was #29 (a prime! Yay! I really like prime numbers, so it was comforting to be assigned a prime number). We were introduced to the judge (who was actually really nice and not terrifying at all) and the other officials and the defendant. I was assigned to a criminal rape case. (Just that alone was enough to make me start rocking more. I almost curled up into a ball in my chair but managed not to.) They asked lots of questions to the group and had people raise their hands to talk. Even though they asked questions like “do you believe you can be a fair and impartial juror for this case?” (My answer: impartial: absolutely. Fair? Absolutely not, for all the reasons stated above and several others.) I couldn’t bring myself raise my hand. I was definitely rocking and my legs were tapping like crazy. I picked a spot on the back of the chair in front of me and stared at it, counting grains in the wood. Then finally, they stopped asking group questions and started going around to the individual jurors in order, asking us a set of basic information they had handed us when we walked into the room. Basic things: name, occupation, occupations of household members, do you know anyone in law enforcement, and finally “can you be a fair and impartial juror?”
For the whole time they were asking questions and for the 28 jurors before, I was scripting my line. “My name is E. I am a PhD student in science. My roommate is also a graduate student. I do not know anyone in law enforcement. I believe I can be impartial, but I do not believe I would be a fair juror, due to serious communication issues. I do not think I would be able to speak in a jury.” When it came time for me to speak, I got through it. I was definitely rocking when I said it, and I stumbled over words. Nerves? Yeah, definitely… but I think it might have helped in the end. Anyway, the judge looked at me, then said “we’ll chat later” and moved on. No further questions for me like he’d given the other jurors. It was very nice, actually. Then the rest of the room finished up. Overall, the judge was a really really nice guy, funny, friendly, and not obviously angry for having to be there, and enjoyed his job.
Finally, they dismissed everyone for lunch, and called out a few people to stay behind… me, a couple of professors, a woman who had been a rape victim, and one or two others. They told us to all wait outside the courtroom, then called everyone back in except me. After a minute they all left as a group, and I went in alone. They didn’t tell me to sit down, so I stood, awkwardly, right at the front of the room, rocking back and forth on my toes. The judge said to me “You said that you might not feel comfortable speaking in a jury situation due to communication problems. Could you please elaborate?”
And so I responded, all the while rocking back and forth, staring at some place near the judge: “I have autism spectrum disorder and while I am ok talking 1 on 1, I cannot keep up in groups bigger than about 3 or 4. On a jury of 12 I would not be able to think, follow, or process the conversation, much less communicate appropriately or effectively.” (Or something to that effect, anyway. I don’t think I paused for punctuation, though there were definitely other awkward pauses while I was trying to spit out the words to all the people staring at me. But I did manage to advocate for myself.)
The judge looked at the two lawyers, and said “any objections?” both said “no” and he looked at me and said “You are excused from serving on this jury. Please return to jury services and turn in your badge.” And I was done. First round of cuts. They also cut the other people who had asked to stay behind. All the academics in the room were cut, too, so its quite possible that being a PhD student in sciences also had to do with my being eliminated. If Autism hadn’t come up, I probably would’ve been cut relatively quickly after that for the academic thing.
And that was that. I served my jury duty, just like every other citizen. It was extremely stressful (though not nearly so stressful as it would have been if I’d been there longer, or been put on the actual jury). But now I have a script for the next time it happens. And maybe, just maybe, over the course of my lifetime, I will get to a place where I can serve on a jury. Because, ironically, I think Autistic people might be some of the best jurors (along with scientists, who are also in the first cut in general), because we deal so well with taking literal meanings, and facts, and making connections. We wouldn’t be as easily swayed one way or another by intimidating body language of witnesses/lawyers/etc. And we are very logical and most of us have a deep black and white respect for rules. And we’re pretty darn good at being impartial and fair. Maybe we wouldn’t make the best jurors ever, but we’d definitely not be the worst. But due to the nature of the court system, and the way that court proceedings transpire, excludes many of us, and definitely me, from being fair, responsible jurors. I believe that everyone on trial deserves a fair and responsible jury. And at this time, that jury does NOT include me. It’s a shame I have to go all the way to the courtroom to have this understood, since it is a waste of everyone’s time, however that’s the system, however broken or not broken it is. Maybe one day I’ll be able to perform the “civic duty” of sitting on a jury, but until that day comes, it is both irresponsible and completely unfair for all parties if I participate. My civic duty is to express that, clearly enough to get my point across and ensure that I am not placed on a jury until I am ready to perform that job properly and responsibly.
And courtroom random tidbit: Juror #11 in my group was the supervisor/boss for Juror #10. They had both been assigned the same day of jury duty, then randomly selected for the same trial, and then randomly seated next to each other. What are the odds? The judge joked with them that they should go out and buy a lottery ticket, since the odds are so random for them that day. Man it’d be awkward to be on a jury with my boss!
I mentioned that I came armed with a letter to hand to the judge in case my brain shut down and I lost speech. This is what it said:
To Whom It May Concern:
I received an official diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in 6th grade, for which I do not have the paperwork. I have not since been re-assessed (for paperwork purposes only), as I cannot afford the evaluation fees as an adult. This means that I shut down in unfamiliar and stressful situations. Sometimes I even lose my ability to process spoken language, both input (being spoken to) and output (my own speech). Thus I have written this out so that in the event that I do lose my ability to process speech, I can hand it to you and you can read it.
I believe this fact alone would make me an irresponsible and thus inappropriate juror. In the context of a trial, there is an extreme amount of verbal input because testimonies are made verbally. In a situation where I am comfortable, with information that I have seen before, I might be able to process 2 or 3 hours of that in a day. However in the case of a trial, all of the verbal input is new information, and it is in a setting where I am not comfortable and am prone to sensory overload and shutting down in the first place. Additionally, while I am ok speaking one-on-one, I cannot keep up with conversations in groups of 3 or more. Due to this, I would not be able to actively participate in a 12-person jury discussion – I would get lost within the first 5 minutes and be unable to voice my opinions. Additionally, when I get stressed, I rock in my seat and occasionally click my tongue or snap my fingers. This is not voluntary, and while it can be stopped, it can only be stopped at the cost of understanding the things being spoken to me. As a rational person, I can see how this would be very disruptive to a courtroom.
While I do agree that it is my civic duty to serve on a jury, I also believe that it is my civic duty to pay attention to every piece of evidence presented and come to a rational judgment, without causing any disturbance to the court or other jurors. Unfortunately, if I have had to give this letter to an official, it is clear to me that I would not be able to do that and fulfill my duties and oath as a responsible juror. Given the above: 1. that I am unable to process verbal language at a fast enough rate to intake all of the information given in a full day of testimony; 2: that I am unable to communicate effectively in large groups of people; and 3. that my responses to stress can be extremely disruptive, and while they are somewhat preventable, the faculties required for me to prevent them would make me even less able to process the information being presented, I believe it would not be fair to the people involved a fair trial if I were placed on a jury.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
I didn’t touch on my inability to read nonverbal communication or any of my issues with sensory processing and not being able to be in a courtroom with flickering lights and lots of sounds (the microphone they had kept going haywire and I was so wound up tight that I must have jumped out of my seat 6 or 7 times when it went nuts). Both of those are important points as well. I didn’t include them for space reasons, and because I felt what I had touched upon was more than sufficient to get me excused. In the end, I didn’t use it, but it was nice to know I had the extra tool. Thanks to @ItsBridgetsWorld (Bridget Allen) for proofreading it for me this morning!