Individuals with Autism in the Criminal Justice System

The first thing to understand when you consider the relationship between individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the criminal justice system (CJS) is that this is most definitely a hot-button issue. Your perspective of the topic will depend on whether you’re a member of a particular group: a law enforcement agency, a family dealing with ASD, a legal team representing a person on the spectrum, a social services agency with a mission of helping individuals with autism, a medical practitioner, or just a citizen concerned about the current state of our society.

No absolute truth exists about this or any other issue. The truth lies somewhere in-between the many sides of a story, buried amongst all of the facts and rhetoric. Unbiased scholarly research is one method of trying to dig through those facts and rhetoric. The amount of research published about individuals with autism in the criminal justice system would fill a warehouse. This is not a subject to take lightly or about which you should jump to any conclusions.

Recent Incidents in the News

Clippings of news articles about incidents involving individuals with autism or other mental health disorders who were either a suspect in criminal activity or victims of police actions—justified or not—would fill a second warehouse. Recently, several such incidents have made headlines:

  • February 2017: In Greenville, SC, two officers from the Greenville Police Department faced federal charges of using excessive force when they used a stun gun on Tario Anderson, who has autism, during an arrest on Christmas Eve 2014. All charges against Anderson, 35, who is 6-feet-6-inches tall and weighs 340 pounds, were dropped. The federal jury determined the officers were not guilty of all charges filed against them in a lawsuit by Anderson’s mother.
  • February 2017: In Athens, GA, a jury considered the case of Noah McGlawn, who was accused of attempted murder after randomly shooting and injuring a motorcyclist in 2012. McGlawn’s lawyer presented a defense that due to autism his client was unable to understand his action was wrong and therefore should be acquitted. The jury found McGlawn guilty of first-degree assault.
  • February 2017: In Fouke, AK, a 12-year-old boy with autism is accused of fatally shooting 21-year-old gas station attendant Christa Shockley.
  • October 2016: In Norfolk, VA, a police officer was found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter. In 2014, Officer Michael Edington shot and killed David Latham, who had a knife in his hand and was acting erratically. Latham had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and previously had several encounters with the local police. Usually, one of the police officers called to Latham’s home knew him and how to effectively handle and quell the situation, but that was not the case in this incident.
  • July 2016: In North Miami, FL, Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist at a group home, was accidently shot in the leg by a police officer, but fortunately only injured, while he was trying to help a young man with autism who had wandered away from the home. The officer who fired the shot was actually trying to shoot the person with autism, because he thought the man was holding a gun, which turned out to be a toy truck.
  • February 2016: In Mesa, AZ, a knife-wielding transgender person with Asperger’s Syndrome (a higher-functioning developmental disorder on the autism spectrum) was shot and killed by police who were responding to a suicidal-person call.
  • April 2012: In Calumet City, IL, a Chicago suburb that borders Indiana, 15-year-old Stephon Watts, who was holding a steak knife, was shot and killed by two police officers. Watts had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Despite the many high-profile cases involving individuals with autism and their interactions with police and the criminal justice system, it is hard to determine whether or not these instances of ASD-CJS interactions are comparable to the percentage of the general population with similar encounters. Though much research about autism and criminal activity has been conducted, there seems to be very little data-based evidence available to help determine if individuals with ASD are more or less likely to end up in the CJS.

Contradictions Within Existing Scholarly Research

The Google Scholar section of the Google search engine lists about 24,300 research articles about Individuals with Autism in the Criminal Justice System. Despite the vast amount of research conducted about this subject, much remains to be learned by the scholars—and much needs to be taught to criminal justice agencies and families directly dealing with autism. Some of the conclusions about ASD-CJS interactions reached in these research papers conflict with each other.

The abstract for the article Persons with Autism and Criminal Justice: Core Concepts and Leading Cases1 states “Persons with mental illness or mental impairments are represented in U.S. criminal justice institutions at a disproportionately high rate.” In contrast to that statement, the abstract for the article A Systematic Review of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System2 states “…it can be concluded so far that people with ASD do not seem to be disproportionately over-represented in the CJS…”

To make matters even more confusing, contradictions about autism in relation to violence or the criminal justice system are present right within a single research report. The abstract for the research article Template to Perpetrate: An Update on Violence in Autism Spectrum Disorder3 states “While no conclusive evidence indicates that individuals with ASD are more violent than those without ASD, specific generative and associational risk factors may increase violence risk among individuals with ASD.”

Another self-contradictory research report indicates individuals with ASD are more likely to be arrested and convicted of a crime, but the report also indicates a lack of sufficient data. In the preface of the comprehensive report Adults with autism and the criminal justice system4, conducted by the City of Birmingham, England, the lead member of the inquiry writes that individuals with autism are “seven times more likely to encounter the police, and at least three times more likely to be imprisoned. Yet few of them intended to do wrong or realised they were doing that.” However, this report also states, “We found that there is little reliable data on the numbers of autistic people who are: apprehended and detained by the police…” or “…in the prison population.”

Legal Issues

The legal issues that commonly arise when individuals with autism are defendants in court cases, according to Mayes, include a defendant’s “competence” to stand trial and their “capacity” to commit a crime. In addition, if found guilty, the circumstance of a defendant’s ASD becomes a mitigating factor during the sentencing phase of a trial.

Likewise, as illustrated in the trial of Noah McGlawn mentioned above, we can infer that the jury’s decision, to find the defendant guilty of first-degree assault instead of attempted murder, was influenced by McGlawn’s autism.

According to Mayes, another legal issue that comes into play for defendants with autism is their ability to testify in their own defense. Additionally, the evidentiary issue of the credibility of a witness with autism is often cited by defense attorneys. On top of those issues is the controversial use of facilitated communication (commonly known as assisted typing) as a means to provide testimony—via a keyboard, picture board, or augmentative communication device—by a person with non-verbal autism, with the help of a facilitator who supports the person’s arm.

Autism as a Defense Argument

According to the research article Autism and the Criminal Defendant5, “When an autistic individual is charged with a crime, one issue is whether autism is a defense to that crime. Autism could potentially be a defense in two ways. First, it may negate an element of a crime, and thus the individual would not be found guilty. Second, it could serve as an excuse to a crime.” The article refers to legal cases where guilty verdicts were overturned on appeal, because the original verdicts did not properly consider “that there is another explanation for the criminal act” (thus negating the actus reus, the act itself) or that “evidence of an autistic disorder can also be used to negate the mens rea, or mental state, of a crime.”

Intervention Training is Increasing

Due to the increasing prevalence of police incidents involving individuals with autism, there has been an increase of demand—by the general public, politicians, and law enforcement agencies—for more and better intervention training for police officers and their support staff. The training would teach how-to more-effectively determine if someone has autism or other mental health issues, as well as how to approach and handle these individuals and de-escalate a situation before it becomes violent or deadly.

Many efforts are already being made to enable intervention training and more-effective responses to incidents involving people with autism. In Connecticut, a state representative has introduced legislation to create a police training program that teaches officers how to search for children with autism who have wandered away from where they should be. Because individuals with autism tend to be sensitive to, and perhaps frightened by, bright or flashing lights and loud noises, like a siren, the training would cover alternative techniques to those standard methods of attracting attention with a police car. The training would also include best practices for communicating with those children.

On a similar note, a police officer in Pensacola, FL has created a software program called “Take Me Home” that helps officers communicate with individuals with autism who have wandered away from their safe and supervised environment. The program, which is especially useful with non-verbal children, is now being used by over 500 other law enforcement agencies. The database program helps a local police department organize and quickly access identification information, including a photograph, submitted by families who have a member with autism or other developmental or cognitive disabilities. In addition, the program can help identify senior citizens who have dementia or Alzheimer’s. If officers on patrol encounter someone who appears to be aimlessly wandering or disoriented, they can enter a description of that person into the program to retrieve information that can help them identify the person and quickly communicate with the person’s family or caregiver.

In Massachusetts, the Methuen Police Department has trained all of its member to understand how to identify someone with autism, how to de-escalate a confrontational situation with that individual, and to get appropriate help for that person. According to an Eagle-Tribune news article about the training, the department data-keeping methods currently do not include a way to keep track of encounters with individuals on the spectrum.

It seems that more data is needed to ascertain the number and the percentage of individuals with autism who are in the criminal justice system. A possible place to start would be to include on arrest and court records whether or not an individual has been diagnosed with ASD, just like those records indicate other personal demographic data, such as age, gender, and race. Having accurate information about ASD-CJS interactions would help to create a better understanding of the extent and seriousness of this issue, which could lead to better interventions and less-harmful conclusions.

Training Material Currently Available

There is currently a substantial amount of information available online about how law enforcement personnel can effectively interact with individuals with autism. Here are links to just a few of those articles, which provide general guidance, along with many specific tips and recommended techniques:

An Urgent Need for More Intervention Training

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Autism Spectrum Disorder Data & Statistics webpage states, “About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network.” A chart on that webpage indicates the “1 in 68” statistic was for the year 2012. The same chart also indicates that in the year 2000 the prevalence of ASD was only in 1 in 150 children. That’s a 55% increase in just a dozen years!

The rapid increase in the number of children with an autism spectrum disorder during that 12-year period is a dramatic indication of the urgent need to better understand the relationship between individuals with autism and the criminal justice system. It also indicates a need to rapidly expand intervention training for ASD-CJS interactions within police departments, correctional agencies, and court systems across our nation.


Online Reference Articles
(all articles open in new window)

Jury verdict rejects excessive force claims in case of autistic man tased by police (Feb. 15, 2017)
Police say treatment of autistic man is justified (Feb. 14, 2017)
McGlawn guilty of first-degree assault (Feb. 13, 2017)
Autism will play into motorcyclist shooter’s defense (Feb. 7, 2017)
Twelve-year-old autistic boy is arrested for murder… (Feb. 3, 2017)
Jury: Norfolk officer not guilty of manslaughter (Oct. 6, 2016)
North Miami police shoot black man…while he tried to help autistic group-home resident (Jul. 21, 2016)
Autism community angered by Mesa police shooting of transgender man in viral video (Feb. 7, 2016)
Black, autistic, and killed by police (Dec. 17, 2015)
Officers Cleared in Death of Autistic Teen (Apr. 17, 2012)
Rep. Linehan Encourages Creating Police Training on Children with Autism (Feb., 14, 2017)
Police train to respond better to those with autism (Jan. 29, 2017)
Pensacola officer creates program to find lost children with autism (Feb. 17, 2017)
Take Me Home Program (The City of Plano, TX)

Scholarly Research Citations
(all articles open in new window)

1. Thomas A. Mayes (2003) “Persons with Autism and Criminal Justice: Core Concepts and Leading Cases,” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions: Vol. 5: No. 2, Spring 2003, pages 92-100. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/10983007030050020401

2. Claire King, Glynis H. Murphy (2014) “A Systematic Review of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders: Vol. 44: Issue 11, November 2014, pages 2717-2733. Available at: https://kar.kent.ac.uk/47512/1/autismCJS_jan2014.pdf

3. David S. Im, MD (2016) “Template to Perpetrate: An Update on Violence in Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Harvard Review of Psychiatry: Vol. 24: Issue 1, January/February 2016, pages 14-35. Available at: http://journals.lww.com/hrpjournal/Fulltext/2016/01000/Template_to_Perpetrate___An_Update_on_Violence_in.2.aspx

4. Health & Social Care Overview and Scrutiny Committee (2012) “Adults with autism and the criminal justice system,” Birmingham City Council: 4 December 2012. PDF download available at: https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/557/adults_with_autism_and_the_criminal_justice_system_novem

5. Christine N. Cea (2015) “Autism and the Criminal Defendant,” St. John’s Law Review: Vol. 88: No. 2, Article 7. Available at: http://scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/lawreview/vol88/iss2/7

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