ASD within the Justice System

ASD within the Justice System

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder can find social behaviour hard to manage and to decipher, they struggle to build rapport, make friends, develop and sustain meaningful relationships. Furthermore communication is also found difficult in some individuals with ASD, some never learn to talk at all while other individuals are verbally fluent but have issues with the practical and logical aspects of the language, such as understanding sentences according to its literal meaning rather than intended meaning allowing for large misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

With this in mind however, ASD does not appear to account for a large number of crimes in society, although certain characteristics may render those on the spectrum vulnerable to offending (1), such as the desire to have friends has led some ASD individuals to be befriended by criminals, and become their unwitting accomplices. People with ASD are more likely to be victims and witnesses of crime than offenders. Their behaviour may appear odd and can sometimes draw unnecessary attention, but in general autism is a hidden disability and it may not be immediately obvious to other people that the person has a disability.

Once in the criminal justice system people with ASD are often misunderstood and open to bullying. Prior to conviction, people with higher functioning ASD, due to their intellectual ability, are deemed fit to be interviewed by police more often. However, during interrogative interviews, people with AS might be more eager to please and to respond compliantly to requests than other individuals (2). Being arrested can be an extremely difficult process for people with ASD, this process can initially involve physical restraint, a lot of noise such as sirens, fast flowing conversations, verbal and nonverbal cues and so forth. Individuals with ASD can experience a sensory overload where they can such down physically and cognitively. Sensory sensitivity is heightened within people with ASD; they can have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. These sensory differences can affect behaviour, and can have a profound effect on a person’s decision making and conduct within a stressful environment.

While people with ASD may appear to understand what is being asked of them during this process, their difficulties understanding complex language may mean they actually do not. Their own use of language may be formal or indirect and they may use words without fully understanding their meaning, making their own statements open to misinterpretation (3).
A person with ASD has the right to an appropriate adult during this process, appropriate adults achieve a fairer justice system by safeguarding the welfare and rights of children and vulnerable adults detained or interviewed by police. Appropriate Adults are distinctly different from other supporters a person might have, such as solicitor, interpreter or mental health worker. They have specific rights and responsibilities that are largely detailed in the PACE Codes of Practice (4).
If the person refuses a solicitor, it may be because they do not understand their role and will feel even more confused when another stranger becomes involved. When the custody officer asks the person whether they have a disability, most autistic people will say no because the question it is not specific enough. However, if the custody officer suspects that the person may have a disability and contacts another health professional it is apparent that the person may only have limited autism knowledge, and may not recognise that someone has the condition. In which case a specialist in the field of ASD such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist can be contacted and a report collected.

Unfortunately, ASD can bring out limitations of the Criminal Justice Service. The process of going through the criminal justice service offers too many opportunities for misunderstanding and encounters for misinterpretation. These encounters include the court process, understanding the testimony and defending their case, their perceptions of the world and vulnerability could in turn worsen the situation, police interviews, police contact, being held at the station and so forth. An ASD individuals social naivety, rigidity to rules, struggle with change or unexpected events and misunderstanding of social cues can all play a key part in the development of anxiety, stress and inappropriate behaviour, making the process very difficult. The mere fact that a police officer is present can cause great anxiety to a law-abiding ASD individual who has no comprehension of the crime they may have committed. More focus is required into the development of ASD experiences within the criminal justice system and how appropriate management of a situation can reduce misunderstandings caused on both sides of the law.


  1. Gina de la Cuesta, (2010),”A selective review of offending behaviour in individuals with autism spectrum disorders”, Journal of Learning Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, Vol. 1 Iss 2 pp. 47 – 58
  2. North A, Russell AJ & Gudjonsson G (2008) High functioning autism spectrum disorders: an investigation of psychological vulnerabilities during interrogative interview. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 19 (3) 323–334.
  3. Freckleton I & List D (2009) Asperger’s disorder, criminal responsibility and criminal culpability. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law 16 (1) 16–40.

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