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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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6.1 The criminal justice system

There are several reasons why autistic people may be especially vulnerable to crime. For instance, unusual behavior in a public place may, sadly, attract physical bullying or other hate crime. Naivety about other people’s motives may make the autistic person especially vulnerable to fraud. It may even result in the autistic person being drawn into committing a crime. Anecdotally, an autistic person has been caught as the perpetrator in several recent cases of computer hacking, while other more devious members of a hacking group have got away.

Autistic people are no more likely to be in prison than any other section of the population (King and Murphy, 2014). However, as we have seen, they may have been manipulated into engaging in criminal acts, or have missed social cues that would have otherwise prevented them from acting this way. It is also possible that some are wrongfully imprisoned because difficulty in understanding police procedure or questioning has led them to admit to crimes they did not commit.

All of these situations require that police officers and court personnel are aware of a person’s autism and follow correct procedures. Adjustments made by the police and courts can include:

  • an interview location where the lighting, chair coverings or officer’s clothes can be adjusted so as not to cause sensory overload
  • presence of a parent, carer, advocate or support person
  • a registered intermediary to advise the police or court on how to phrase questions so they are fully understood
  • in court, the autistic person may be able to use the live video link or to have their interviews and cross-examinations recorded.

As with other aspects of public life, the NAS is working towards awarding accreditation to organisations that demonstrate a commitment to understanding autism, and making appropriate accommodations. The UK Ministry of Justice is encouraging prisons and young offender institutions to become accredited. The NAS also offers a free guide for legal professionals and police officers who find themselves working with autistic people.