Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 1

There things in autistic people`s behaviour that can make them more vulnerable when they come in to contact with the criminal justice system? Getting in to trouble with the police isn’t a pleasant experience for anybody.  However, if this does happen there are certain ways that people are expected to behave when they are arrested, or when they are being questioned – and certain types of behaviour that can make the situation a whole lot worse.

Traits that are misunderstood which can make their experience more difficult than it needs to be?  When thinking about how autistic people may present themselves, and hearing police officers talk about questioning techniques, and how they would go about approaching somebody in the street, it appears there are definitely traits of autism which could lead to confrontation, and unnecessary difficulties for all concerned.

Literal Language – the person with autism may have done something wrong, or may be suspected of doing something they haven’t actually done, when out in public.  But it is easy to imagine that if an autistic person takes things literally they might be inclined to say `No` if the police approach, and ask if the autistic person would `like` to come with them`.   Phrases such as `would you like to come with me?` `would you mind showing me some I.D.` `would you like to step out of the car?` might be used by the police to try to seem less intimidating, and give the suspect a chance to cooperate.  But if somebody takes them literally, and says `No` they will probably be perceived as being rude – which could lead to heightened tensions between the two parties.

Touch – it may be the case that a police officer puts their hand on somebody`s shoulder or arm in an attempt to calm them down.  Even though this may not happen often, it could still lead to trouble if it did.  If the autistic person finds being touched painful and unsettling – even if it is only the softest of touches – they may react by pulling away, pushing the police officers are arm off them, or even shouting at the police officer.  Again the police could easily see this as the person beginning to get aggressive for what they perceive to be no reason.

Emotional Reaction – it would be expected that if somebody was accused of a crime they didn’t commit, or was talking about a crime they felt guilty about committing, there would be some large, emotional reaction which would be visible on the person`s face when they were being interviewed.  It is though, entirely possible that however much the situation had affected the person with autism, they may not show any outward reaction.   An example of this might be if somebody were charged with a theft they had not committed; the standard reaction might include outrage, and a shocked expression.  The tone of voice would likely change as well as the facial expression.  This could also be true of autistic people, but there is the chance that the autistic person may not show any of their inner reaction.  It would look as if being charged with the crime hadn’t come as a shock to them at all.  And this might lead police to believe in their guilt even more.


  1. Alexis Drzewucki March 5, 2015
  2. Lisa April 8, 2015
  3. Cara @ Business Watch. April 14, 2015