January 2017, a 14-year old autistic boy from Palmerston North, New Zealand was arrested by the local Police on reports of assaulting his own Mother. Police authorities said they were trying to make the proper accommodations for the arrested boy in connection with his disorder but cannot find any, so the boy had to spend the night in jail. A week passed by but the family of the arrested autistic teen complained that there were no special facilities or qualified persons who were willing to house the boy or able to help them with his condition especially that he’s facing legal issues. Feeling that their son was passed around like nobody’s problem, the mother said they were left with no other choice but to hurriedly look for temporary residential arrangements following court proceedings.

Last April, another autistic child named John Haygood was arrested by the Florida police after his own paraprofessional sued the 10-year old boy with felony battery on allegations that he was punched and kicked by John in the middle of their class while trying to apprehend him, leading to his expulsion from the Academy October 2016. While visiting the school together with his mother to discuss possible return arrangements, police authorities came and informed the parent that her son is under arrest. Shocked and confused on what to do, the mother decided to record the arrest on her phone, showing John being distressed and shouting words of concern, telling the police not to touch him because he doesn’t want to be touched. Dismayed about what happened, the mother expressed her strong resentment to the fact that the authority has treated her son like a criminal instead of seeing him as a child with special needs.

Just last week, another person who is also diagnosed with autism fell into the teeth of law after being sentenced to prison for 15 years. Damon Smith, a 20-year old university student from London was found guilty of possessing an explosive substance with intent, as issued by Old Bailey court. Damon was arrested for the crime he committed in October of 2016, after leaving a home-made improvised explosive device inside a backpack on a Jubilee Line tube train. Despite stating his defence that it was just a prank smoke bomb he made, and even after factoring out the nature of his disorder, Judge Richard Marks argued that they found reasonable grounds to issue a guilty verdict on the case. As per expert inspection, it was found out that the improvised bomb is a viable explosive device that failed to detonate. Further investigation of Damon’s personal life revealed that he has developed a certain kind of obsession to mass murders and Islamic terrorism, with strong affinity to the jihadist group ISIS.

The Underlying Issue

These three recent above mentioned cases are just some of the many incidents happening around the world involving autistic individuals who are being implicated in criminal activities and punished with serious legal actions. This specific topic about criminal tendencies of autistic persons has spurred debates and inspired research undertakings aimed at identifying whether autism can really lead one to commit a crime, or is it just another misunderstood case of a human disorder that the society needs to become more aware of.  However, a closer look on this matter reveals that there are still not enough studies that would contribute to a comprehensive and more convincing compilation of data conclusive of either assumption.

The nature of Autism Spectrum Disorder as a neurological condition has presented both sides of the argument in a criminal-lawful context. In one point of view, there are certain autistic behaviours that can be attributed to violence and possibly unlawful actions. Autistic individuals have difficulty understanding other people’s mind-set and perspective, which could lead them to neglect other’s welfare in planning and carrying out any course of action. In the same note, they can easily get agitated by what’s happening in their surrounding and respond aggressively to overwhelming situations. These strong emotions do not fade easily and may fuel impulsive behaviour. Also, their restrictive pattern of interest makes them overly focused on very specific matters, and this obsessive nature can possibly turn into something dangerous when it is directed toward the wrong object of interest.

In contrast, autistic individuals heavily rely on clear and recognizable cues or guides to help them discern what actions are morally upright. Hence, when laws and ordinances are introduced to them, they can just see it as another set of rules that they have to follow. In this scenario, an autistic person is more likely to become a law-abiding citizen than a potential criminal. With these variables at hand, one cannot just automatically side with one theory without considering the other and shed light on some gray areas connecting autism disorder to criminal acts.

Research Done in Autism-Related Crimes

On a more positive light, there are published studies that somehow aim to show the relationship between autism and crime. A group of American researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina led by Catherine Cheely Bradley Ph.D., assistant professor of paediatrics, have analysed a specific population of autistic teenagers from South Carolina. They collected data from juvenile correction facilities in the region and compared it to the gathered data on South Carolina autistic teens. They found out that only 5 percent of the total 609 teenagers were actually instituted in these correctional facilities which are relatively insignificant compared to the population size of their research. These 32 autistic individuals are also found to be as intellectually able as their neurotypical counterparts whose criminal offenses are categorized as only mild and non-violent.

In the same study, Professor Bradley and her team also compared the said 32 autistic teenagers to another control group of 99 delinquent juveniles who are not autistic. Some distinctions have been observed, specifically on the number of crimes directed at people, which is higher in autistic teenagers. When it comes to property-related crimes such as theft, the neurotypical teens showed bigger numbers. Unlike the neurotypical juveniles, those with autism are less likely to follow the whole prosecution process as they are instead instructed to undergo pre-trial intervention programs.

On the context of crimes committed against people, it is also discovered that autistic teens are being charged with such offense usually in school settings, leading the team to believe that these misconducts are caused by social factors that an autistic teen encounters in schools, such as peer pressure, alienation, and bullying or public ridicule. However, when compared to the overall rate of school suspensions and expulsions imposed to persons with disabilities, those with autism are at the bottom part of the total account.

However, studies and research such as these are arguably biased or very limited in scope, as what is pointed out by another expert in the person of Matthew Lerner, Ph. D. Being the director of the Social Competence and Treatment Lab of Stony Brook University and assistant professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Paediatrics from the same educational institution, Professor Lerner emphasized that these probes are conducted to either  a single person or on a group of individuals who are already charged with criminal offense. Although these case studies can show certain relationships between autism and criminal activities, it does not really establish a strong reasoning as to how autism can make a person commit crime because of the retrospective nature of these research. But when it comes to using causation methods and actual experimental setups, Professor Lerner said there isn’t much to be found for autism-related topics.

Little to No Evidence that Autism Leads to Crime

Due to the superficiality of most of the research conducted on autism and crime and the low level of usefulness of the resulting data, establishing a link between the two is almost impossible, even today, given that there’s still very little evidence that can help researchers arrive at a specific conclusion. To back Professor Lerner’s point, another autism study of Danish origin has presented that there is an equal chance for neurotypical people and people with Asperger’s to commit a crime, and the same possibility is even lesser for persons with classic and atypical autism compared to normal people. Lerner and his team also published an article in 2012 concluding that several studies of this type and topic are not really indicative of any link between autism and crime. This rationale has found its biggest breakthrough following the final verdict on the case of  Adam Lanza, the suspect in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting incident which left 26 dead in December of 2012. It was later found out that Lanza has a history of Asperger’s Syndrome but instead of pinning the case down to his disorder, the commission tasked to investigate the shooting concluded that his Asperger’s did not lead him to commit such atrocious act.

The same conclusion was reached by two other British researchers, who in their article published in 2014, stated that most of the studies and research conducted to explain the connection between autism and occurrence of crime are either poorly made or are begging for more follow-up investigations which primarily lead to tentative results instead of conclusive ones.

Victims Instead of Criminals

Contrary to what the society sometimes portray or perceive about autistic individuals on both moral grounds and legal frameworks, persons who fall on the autism spectrum are more likely to become the victims of criminal acts themselves, instead of acting out as the perpetrator. Following a research conducted by Interactive Autism Network, parental abuse or neglect happen to children with disabilities three times higher than the average cases of normal children suffering from the same situation. When it comes to cases of bullying, autistic children have the highest number of victims compared to others, which is quite alarming given the implications of these social factors toward the development of an autistic individual.

One cannot simply overlook the fact that autistic individuals face several social challenges, including the lack of empathy, weak control of emotions, and great dependence to objective reasoning instead of subjective approach where the concept of morality stands. Add to that the difficulty of making social responses which are essential in the line of investigative questioning and interrogation, autistic individuals are highly vulnerable to manipulation and they can easily end up making false confessions in court proceedings.

It is in this regard that parents of autistic persons, support groups or communities, organizations with autism advocacies, and social welfare instructions, have urged the criminal justice system, the police force, and attorneys, to better understand autistic individuals as they follow legal procedures and sanctions.

What the Future holds for Autism-Crime Research

With all the underlying problems related to how the world treats autistic individuals involved in criminal activities, and the evident weakness of past and present research aimed at explaining how autism and crime are related, it is logical to expect certain developments in these in-depth studies in the future. By finally coming up with good quality research, nations can use the gathered data to improve their strategies in treating autism symptoms and law enforcement can become more critical in dealing with autism-related crimes. There is still a large room for progress on this specific topic of study, although researchers may find it necessary to change their methodologies and even their perspective in conducting their analyses.

However, the future for autism-crime research may not be all about positive changes and development. Several researchers also argue on the fixation of these studies in autism as a singular factor when in fact other psychological variables can also be considered in explaining an autistic person’s criminal acts. If these future research become too focused on linking autism alone to violence and criminal behaviour, it might stigmatize the very term itself and put many autistic persons and families in social backlash and legal repercussions. It is suggested that a wider variable should be considered, one that can include the whole community in order to gain more support and awareness.