Autism and the Criminal Justice System

Autism and the Criminal Justice System

Autism is a 'neurodifference' that affects the way that people process information and perceive and interact with the world around them, it is not a mental illness. It is a 'spectrum condition' which means that it affects people in very different ways. Autism is a life long condition and there is no cure (though most people that I've worked with who are on the autistic spectrum do not want a cure - they just want the 'neurotypical' world to understand and accomodate their needs).

People with autism may appear socially awkward, distant or aloof, socially isolate themselves, or display very 'black and white' thinking with little appreciation of the 'grey' in between. For example, they may understand that the safest place to cross the road is at a pedestrian crossing when the green man is showing. However, they may press the button and wait for the green man when there is no traffic coming, and more importantly, may not appreciate that it is not 'their turn' to cross the road if a police car is coming with its light flashing and its siren on. Some may be very compliant, particularly when stressed and with people who appear in authority, becasue they think that that is what they are supposed to do. This can increase the chances of them saying things or admitting to things that are not necessarily accurate in police interviews. Others may answer questions truthfully not appreciating that they may be implicating themselves and not understanding that they do not have to answer questions.

People with autism commonly experience difficulties in three areas:

  • Social interaction and social relationships
  • Social communication
  • Social imaginition and flexibility of thought

People with autism often experience difficulties with making and maintaining (particulalrly) new relationships. They may have difficulties understanding and relating to other people and social situations. This can lead to frustration, anxiety or social isolation.

Some people with autism can struggle to 'read people' and to understand and appreciate their intentions. This can mean that they are vulnerable to 'mate crime' and being taken advantage of.

Others may lack an understanding of social norms, such as how much it is appropriate to talk about things that interest them, but that may not interest other people to the same extent. 

People with autism may struggle to process or concentrate on more than one type of sensory input at the same time. This can mean, for example, that some people may not look you in the eye when they are talking to you. Although it can appear to others that they are not listening to you, they may not be looking directly at you because they are listening to you and concentrating on what you are saying.

Many people with autism do not start speaking at an age appropriate time, and some remain 'non-verbal' or speak very little. However, this is most commonly realted to what can be termed 'lower functioning autism' and you are much less likley to meet people like this in the criminal justice system. 

Many people with autism struggle to understand and interpret non-literal langauge such as metaphors and sarcasm. Some may tell you that they know when someone is being sarcastic, but they struggle to understand what they are really saying. Others may struggle with non-literal language such as "pull your socks up" and may interpret it as an instruction to actually pull their socks up.

Some people may be able to do half a conversation very well - they may be able to be a good listener or a good talker, especially if they are taking about things that particulalry interest them - but struggle to do both within a 'regular' conversation. They may struggle to read social cues and other areas of non-verbal communication, such as knowing how and when to enter conversations, particularly those involving more than two people. 

Others may be honest and blunt to the point of tactlessness because they do not recognise the concept of a 'white lie' intended to avoid hurting other peoples' feelings.

People with autism may struggle to see things from other peoples' point of view. They may have difficulty with predicting the possible consequences of their actions. They may find it hard to conceive of hyperthetical situations. All these can make participating in the criminal justcie system more difficult. Without the innate ability to perceive other peoples' perspectives, it can make people with autism appear unempathic and lacking in remorse. Historically there has been quite a lot of misdiagnosis or misinterpretation of autistic lack of empathy with psychopathy. The difference is that psychopaths can recognise pain and distress, but do not react to it in a socially normal way. People with autism do not react because they do not 'see' the pain or distress.

Problems with predicting the possible outcomes of actions can make people with autism appear to act impulsively and without thinking, and they may engage in potentially dangerous activities, either for themselves or for others. Difficulty with hypothetical situations can may participation in some offender behaviour programs difficult as they may require this skill.

However, it is very important to understand and appreciate that there are almost no traits that affect all people with autism. So remember, if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism, and don't be tempted to apply what they find challenging or what helps them, to other people with autism.

Each day next week, there will be a case study describing the experiences of a person with autism in the criminal justice system. Whilst stereotypically people with autism are said to be more likely to commit arson, sexual offences or violence (and some of these feature in the case studies to follow), the evidence of this is very limited. Most offending by people with autism is due to:
  • Specific or restricted interests
  • A need for routine
  • A lack of social skills 
  • Misinterpreting of social cues and social naivety


Case Studies


The National Autistic Society have produced a useful document for police on responding to people with autism.

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