Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 1

Tone of Voice – this is a continuation of the last point – if somebody was being questioned by the police their tone of voice might be expected to betray them; they might sound nervous or confident, relaxed or shocked.  But a percentage of people with autism have quite monotone voices.  The tone of their voice rarely changes despite what they may be feeling on the inside.  A completely innocent person might be questioned over a terrible crime, and yet they might keep the same calm look, and flat steady voice throughout the entire interview, despite how shaken the nature of the crime they were being accused of might have made them feel on the inside.

Remorse – the concept of showing remorse for a crime that has been committed can be a very important one when it comes to sentencing.  Not all autistic people accused of crimes will be innocent, but being able to convey the feelings of remorse in a way that will impact on judges, and juries might prove to be difficult.  It could be that somebody with autism simply cannot recognise the level of emotions that they may be feeling, and have no way of putting them in to words.  It is a sad habit of humanity that people often judge others emotional sincerity by comparing their actions to how they themselves would have behaved in the same situation.  An example of this that is recognisable to many people is if somebody doesn’t cry after the death of a loved one; people seem to think that it is ok to criticise because it is assumed that grieving involves crying.  If somebody with autism can`t demonstrate the stereo-typical types of behaviour, and expression that supposedly go along with feelings like remorse, then it is likely that they will be judged much more harshly.

Alibi – innocent until proven guilty is a commonly used phrase.  It can be difficult because sometimes telling the truth isn’t quite good enough to prove innocence.  It has become a bit of cliché in police dramas for a suspect to say that they were home alone all night, and they don’t have anybody to back up their alibi.  The problem is that for the logical autistic mind, the issue isn’t to prove themselves innocent, it is for the police to attempt to prove them guilty.  If they know they are innocent then they might assume that this will eventually be proven.  Unfortunately with so many innocent people ending up in prison, it is evident that this is not always the case.  Not being proactive enough in proving an alibi, or overall innocence could lead to serious problems.

Volunteering Information – it may be the case that somebody with autism might not be able to volunteer information.  They may need a specific question to provoke an answer.  Somebody might be asked when they last spoke to a person and they could say that they talked on Wednesday.  If asked if they had been in contact with the person since they would say no, simply because it didn’t occur to them to volunteer the information that they had seen the person driving past their house on Saturday afternoon.  For people who don’t have this problem it`s a difficult one to understand, but sometimes it is the case that it just simply doesn’t occur to somebody to say something, however important it may be, unless they are directly asked about it.

Strong Sense of Justice – a strong sense of justice is often cited as a positive trait of autism.  One problem with this though can be the fact that when an autistic person believes an injustice is being done they may stand up against it whatever the cost.  In some circumstances this can be a good thing, but in others, when the injustice is something as simple as having to pay a fine, or to stop playing music at a certain volume, then refusing to comply with this apparent injustice can be problematic.  The police may very well not understand that the person has autism, and may think that they are disregarding the rules out of a sense of superiority, or contempt.

Illogical Rules – lots of autistic people will follow the rules to the letter every day of their life, until they come across one which doesn’t make logical sense, then they may simply disregard it.  An example of this that most people, autistic or not, would probably find relatable, would be downloading music.  It might not be such a big deal now, but a few years ago there was a campaign against it, likening it to theft, and reminding people that it was illegal.  But hardly anybody could see the sense in this, and so everybody continued to download it anyway.  More often than not it is not ok to tell somebody with autism that there is a set rule they need to follow – that rule and the reasons behind it needs to be explained to them.

Naïve, and easily Influenced – even though it goes without saying, it is worth reiterating that not all autistic people are naïve, and easily influenced.  But sadly some can be.  It could be something such as trusting a police officer when they say there is no need for a lawyer, or admitting to things they don’t really want to admit to because of pressure being put upon them.   Perhaps the manipulating forces could come from the other side; being manipulated in to taking sole responsibility for a crime, or in to holding drugs for somebody.  Autistic people themselves are quick to point out that they can be vulnerable to occurrences such as this.  There is also the fact that they will most likely be suffering a sensory overload when being questioned, meaning that they cannot think clearly, and this can make autistic people incredibly vulnerable when they come in to contact with law enforcement agencies.

The above points may make it sound as if all autistic people are victims waiting to happen, and all law enforcement officers are clumsy, and insensitive.  But this is obviously not true, and not what this article is meant to be saying at all.  It is hoped that most members of the justice system will have a level of understanding about autism, and some knowledge of how to deal with it in a professional context.  And there will be many autistic people who will have, if not positive, at least bearable encounters with law enforcement.  And this isn’t to say that people with autism should be let off lightly simply because they are autistic.  All it is saying is that this level of professional understanding needs to apply to not just the majority, but the entirety of people involved in the criminal justice system.


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