People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have characteristics that could make them both more likely, and less likely, to break the law. On the one hand, they may have trouble with aggression, controlling strong emotions, and understanding other people’s perspectives. They may have challenging behaviours that could attract police attention. However, they also tend to find rules helpful and follow them precisely , and laws are simply rules that they could be expected to follow.
Several research studies have found either no link between autism and violent crime, or could not reach a conclusion about a link. A Danish study found that people with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of high-functioning autism) were no more likely than the general population to commit a crime; those with classic autism and “atypical autism” were less likely than other people to commit crimes.
Research on violent criminals with high-functioning ASD found that the offenders may have deficits in moral reasoning, understanding other people’s perspectives, and emotional control. These deficits could, potentially, reduce their responsibility for crimes they commit in some cases.
However, as the number of individuals with autism has dramatically increased in the last twenty years, so too have autistic defendants in criminal proceedings in proportion to the increase in overall numbers. Such cases are extremely challenging to the criminal court system because autistic individuals’ motivations, perceptions, and intentions are often difficult for courts to understand. Questions of mental capacity and criminal intent are particularly challenging. Communication difficulties and problems in recognising social signals may place people with ASD at a disadvantage when questioned by police. They may not be able to tell if an investigator is lying or manipulating them. As a result, they may make a false confession or fail to protect their legal rights.
Similarly, courts may fail to understand what prison sentences mean for autistic individuals. The issue of autism in criminal courts is likely to grow in significance as the large population of autistic children become adults. The kinds of criminal cases range from assault to murder and from charges related to child pornography to possession of weapons without license. Many of these criminal cases highlight the complex and disturbing ways in which criminal law is interfacing with the world of autism.
Despite the public interest in people with autism as criminals, they are more likely to be victims, according to experts. Children with disabilities are about three times more likely to be the victims of abuse or neglect than nondisabled children. Children with autism are bullied more often than other children, although they can occasionally be bullies themselves, according to research by the Interactive Autism Network.
Most of the legal contact that individuals with autism have is as victims.