Adults with autism in the criminal justice system

The discussion continues.

In their letter entitled ‘Adult autism – hidden in forensic settings’ (September 2016), Sarah Ashworth and Dr Ruth J. Tully highlight that adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in forensic settings frequently experience it as more traumatic due to the fact that their additional needs go unrecognised and they therefore do not receive the appropriate care that they need. Individuals with ASD are also more vulnerable to bullying and social isolation within prison. The authors of the letter call for more investment in this area; it is a call which we echo and amplify.

Unfortunately, the peer reviewed research in this area is significantly lacking (for review see Allely, 2015). Despite the few studies in this area emphasising the importance of identification, assessment and appropriate care and intervention for individuals with ASD in the prison, there is currently only one prison in the United Kingdom which is ‘autism friendly’. Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution (HMYOI) Feltham is the first prison or young offender institution in the UK to be awarded Autism Accreditation. For over two years, Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution (HMYOI) Feltham has been working with the National Autistic Society in order to improve the way they support offenders with ASD. As researchers, we aim to increase recognition of this area with the hope that more prisons in the UK will obtain Autism Accreditation.

However, this issue of a lack of awareness and recognition of ASD occurs even earlier in the criminal justice process – police interview and court proceedings (Cooper & Allely, in press). With regard to the court proceedings, concern has been raised in the literature over how juries and judges handle cases involving defendants with ASD. This is particularly concerning considering that there is some indication in the literature that jurors may hold misconceptions and stigmatising beliefs about ASD that may have a negative impact on a juror’s decision regarding a defendant with ASD. Some behaviours exhibited by defendants with ASD can be viewed negatively if not understood in the context of the defendant’s condition. Freckelton (2013) detailed the case of State of New Jersey v. Burr (2007). In this case, the defendant, Burr, appeared in court with a bag draped over his head. When asked a question he would respond with questions from the Book of Deuteronomy.

It is important that practitioners in the criminal justice system have the knowledge and skills to recognise and respond appropriately to a witness or an accused person with ASD. To that end ‘The Advocate’s Gateway’ ( provides guidance in the form of an autism ‘toolkit’ for those planning to question someone with ASD. Decisions from the Court of Appeal Criminal Division provide examples of cases where defendants have been tried and convicted, then diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and as a result had their convictions quashed: See for instance R v. Reynolds [2004] EWCA Crim 1834 and R v. Sultan [2008] EWCA Crim 6. Cases such as these underline the importance of obtaining expert evidence on the accused person’s condition and how it affects their actions as soon as possible and ideally at the point at which they become involved with the criminal justice system.

Awareness identification and assessment for ASD needs to occur as early as possible in the criminal justice process. Further research is warranted including research evaluating cases involving suspects and defendants with ASD comparing charges, pleas entered, procedural adjustments at court, evidence adduced about the defendant’s condition, directions to juries, judicial remarks on the evidence (e.g. summing up for the jury), verdicts and sentencing. Such research would enable the assessment of the specific offending behaviour and disorder of the defendant and how these may be relevant to determining their mental capacity, culpability and case outcome.

Dr Clare Allely
Lecturer in Psychology
University of Salford
Professor Penny Cooper
39 Essex Chambers

Dr Toni Wood
Lecturer in Criminology
University of Salford

Allely, C.S. (2015). Experiences of prison inmates with autism spectrum disorders and the knowledge and understanding of the spectrum amongst prison staff: A review. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, 6(2), 55–67.
Cooper, P & Allely, C.S. (in press). The curious incident of the man in the bank: Procedural fairness and a defendant with Asperger’s syndrome. Criminal Law & Justice.
Freckelton, I. (2013). Autism spectrum disorder: Forensic issues and challenges for mental health professionals and courts. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 26(5), 420–434.

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