Neil Brewer Ph.D.

Weighing the Evidence

Autism

Autistic Adults' Interactions with the Justice System

... and the role of perspective taking.

Posted Aug 27, 2019

It is not uncommon to come across stories in the media about an awful crime committed by a young adult male who has been described as a bit of a loner. Occasionally, such stories also contain speculation that the culprit has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), although it is often not clear if a formal diagnosis has ever been made. 

Moreover, in some cases, it emerges that the disorder is being presented as a mitigating factor in trial proceedings. This sort of publicity, especially when the crime is horrific in nature, may suggest to some that there is an inexorable link between autism and involvement in a crime.

The scientific evidence does not, however, support the existence of such a link, although a case can be made that some social-cognitive characteristics related to autism may contribute to unwitting involvement in crime or difficulties in interactions with the law.

But first, the evidence about the autism and criminal involvement link: Determining the prevalence of criminal activity in subgroups of the population is extremely tricky from a methodological viewpoint. 

Studies of crime prevalence among autistic samples have used various methodologies, including examining the representation of autistic individuals in psychiatric wards and prisons, in samples with a recorded involvement with the justice system, among particular types of offenders, as well as examining criminal behavior among autistic individuals living in the community.

In a recent book, Crime and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Myths and Mechanisms, my colleague Robyn Young and I highlight a range of interpretative difficulties with the data from such studies: for example, inadequate sample sizes, questions regarding the reliability of the available ASD diagnostic information and the presence of relevant comorbid psychiatric disorders, and biases within the justice system in terms of the way in which different types of cases are handled.

Following a review of a wide range of studies, we concluded that, yes, of course, there may be some nasty, autistic individuals out there. And there will be some autistic individuals with comorbid conditions that heighten the risk of criminal behavior. But our detailed evaluation of the available evidence suggested that the involvement of ASD individuals in crime is unlikely to be very different from the crime prevalence rate in the population as a whole. 

Despite this conclusion, it is important to realize that certain cognitive or behavioral characteristics commonly associated with autism may—given some unfortunate environmental circumstances (or bad luck)—render an individual vulnerable to becoming involved in criminal activity and, furthermore, prejudice the outcome of their interactions with the police and the courts.

One of the well-documented features of ASD, and one which many consider to be a core feature, is some kind of broad deficit in perspective-taking—or what has often been referred to as a deficit in theory of mind. Such deficits are likely to be reflected in an impaired ability to recognize the intentions of others with whom they are interacting, perhaps resulting in a misreading of other people’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors. 

These deficits may also contribute to a lack of appreciation of how their own behaviors, and especially some of the unusual behaviors that may be seen in autistic individuals, are likely to be perceived by others. 

What have these characteristics got to do with getting involved in crime or having unfortunate interactions with police or in the courtroom? Not being able to read the real intentions of others, and just taking everything at face value, could have disastrous consequences if the other person is planning some criminal act and is attempting to involve the ASD individual.

And, perspective-taking deficits may underpin a lack of awareness of how behaviors commonly seen in ASD individuals may be unfavorably interpreted during interactions with the police or courtroom officials. For example, behaviors such as avoidance of eye contact, not recognizing the subtleties of figurative language (i.e., taking everything literally), repetitive body movements, or a lack of affect in verbal communication may all contribute to negative evaluations.

In our recent book, we discuss in detail (with numerous illustrative case examples) how deficits in perspective-taking, or theory of mind, may—under some unpropitious circumstances—render an ASD individual vulnerable. 

Unfortunately, understanding perspective-taking characteristics in adults has been neglected by researchers—although there have been some attempts to measure these characteristics, with a recent paper showing considerable variability in the nature and extent of the deficits in ASD adults. 

However, although clinical observations about what we might expect to see in the behavior of autistic adults abound, our understanding of strengths and weaknesses in the area of perspective-taking, its variability both within and between individuals, and the implications for everyday adaptive functioning is still extremely limited.

Future research certainly needs to focus on these issues if we are to ensure that ASD individuals are not at heightened risk of adverse interactions with the justice system. 

In subsequent pieces, I hope to outline some exciting recent studies that provide hard empirical evidence highlighting precisely how perspective-taking deficits can constrain the effectiveness of ASD individuals’ interactions with police and the courts, and discuss how we might deal with the problems that result.

References

Brewer, N., & Young, R. L. (2015).  Crime and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Myths and Mechanisms.  London, UK: Jessica Kingsley.

Brewer, N., & Young, R. L. (2018).  Interactions of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder with the criminal justice system: Influences on involvement and outcomes.  In J. L. Johnson, G. S., Goodman, & P. C. Mundy (Eds.),  The Wiley Handbook of Autobiographical Memory, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the Law (pp. 231-244).  UK: John Wiley.