Children with autism and other serious psychological conditions are being targetted by the government's controversial anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), according to mental health charities and professionals.
In one case in the South West, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome, an autistic disorder, was given an Asbo which stated he was not to stare over his neighbours' fence into their garden.
The young man concerned had no previous criminal convictions, but if he breached the order by 'continuing to stare' he faced a custodial sentence.
His case has been taken up by the British Institute for Brain Injured Children (BIBIC), who have unearthed similar abuses across the country where Asbos have been used against autistic children.
One of the characteristics of Asperger's is obsessional behaviour and a tendency towards repetitive routines which can seem peculiar and even disturbing to people not familiar with the condition. Sufferers of the disorder can have a normal IQ, but find it difficult to read emotions and the effect their actions have on other people.
In one example discovered by BIBIC, an Asbo was given to a 15-year-old with Tourette syndrome, which can involve an inability to stop shouting out profanities. The order banned the teenager from swearing in public, something made impossible by the gravity of his disorder.
In one case in the Midlands, the authorities applied for an Asbo against a 12-year-old girl with Asperger's who had been swearing in the street. It later emerged that she had heard her parents arguing with neighbours and had simply mimicked them.
The cases came to light after the charity launched a campaign earlier this year to promote tolerance of children with behavioural difficulties. Parents emerged with tales of mistreatment by the education and criminal justice systems.
BIBIC spokeswoman Pam Knight said: 'It appeared that the popular phrase "zero tolerance" was being taken literally and affecting their children unfairly. This is zero tolerance gone potty.'
The National Autistic Society last night called on the Home Office to record all cases when people with serious mental disorders had been given Asbos. Campaigners believe the definition of anti-social behaviour in the relevant legislation, the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act, is too vague. They argue that 'behaviour that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress' could describe the behaviour of many autistic people.
© The Observer