Autistic Defendants Are Being Failed by the Criminal Justice System (2024)

Nellie L. King

Criminal accusations can be extremely difficult and complicated for anyone. For a particular population with mental disabilities, such as autism, the legal system can present an even greater set of challenges. Law enforcement can sometimes approach crime scenes with little knowledge about how to interact with those suffering from autism and can unintentionally trigger an escalated response. This is one of the many ways that autistic defendants are being failed by the criminal justice system.

The team at the Law Offices of Nellie L. King is passionate about raising awareness of troubling trends in how autistic defendants are treated.

Interactions Begin With the Police

The journey through the criminal justice system often starts with law enforcement. Police are tasked with the job of being a first responder. They are trained to assess a situation, determine the facts, and make arrests as necessary. Sometimes, these situations can be life-threatening to the officer, the perpetrator, witnesses, and any victims involved. In these cases, matters can escalate quickly, with law enforcement shouting or drawing weapons, which could easily set off an autistic individual.

With law enforcement incidents gaining a greater spotlight, many are hoping that the right training is occurring. Unfortunately, autism training for police is still an area that is lacking. In one study, only 52.9% of police officers who participated acknowledged that they had received autism training at some point in their careers. 34.8% indicated that they had firsthand knowledge, and 56.9% admitted that they had little to no knowledge of autism spectrum disorder.

With such little training, those with autism are facing a challenge when interacting with police. However, this isn’t a police problem but a societal reflection. There is little understanding of autism among the general public, and those who do not understand an autistic person’s mannerisms or triggers could misinterpret behaviors as criminal.

Another study found that children with autism are more likely to come in contact with police either as the victim or the perpetrator. Lack of training, plus behaviors that could be perceived as noncompliant or threatening, can lead to disastrous interactions. When an investigator asks a lot of questions of an autistic person, they could be overwhelmed, answer incorrectly, or unknowingly disregard their rights.

After an Arrest

After an arrest, a person with autism has the right to an attorney, just like anybody else. Unfortunately, if they cannot afford an attorney who focuses on autism cases or does not understand how to advocate for their clients, they could receive representation who is unfamiliar with their condition and, thus, supplies a faulty criminal defense. When an attorney is familiar with autism, they can better advocate for their clients.

A study in the United Kingdom found that, in trials, a jury is often uninformed of the defendant’s autism. This is similar to the situation in the United States. Juries that are not given the full knowledge of the defendant can misinterpret behaviors at a crime scene or in the courtroom. This can negatively influence the verdict or the sentencing.

In addition, the study found that lawyers who were not knowledgeable about autism were more likely to misinterpret their client’s behaviors. They may believe that they are more likely to self-harm or that their clients experienced “meltdowns.” These hindrances make communication difficult and heighten the stress and anxiety of the accused.

Jail and Prison Time

While awaiting trial or after sentencing, a person with autism may find themselves spending time in jail or prison. Unfortunately, approximately 30% of women and 19% of men who are incarcerated have a cognitive disability, such as autism. Jails and prisons are synonymous with noise, crowds, and violence. All of these can trigger a person with autism, causing those around them to respond with further violence or leading to physical contact with staff.

Those with autism may have sensory sensitivities or a deficiency in social cues. These make them targets within the jail and prison systems, which can mislabel them as troublemakers, noncompliant, or a threat.


Q: Can People With Autism Be Convicted of a Crime?

A: Yes, people with autism can be convicted of a crime. Unfortunately, some individuals who are arrested are diagnosed with autism. This diagnosis alone is not enough to cause difficulties, but the behaviors they experience as a result of their autism could add difficulties to their progress through the criminal justice system and, potentially, even lead to a conviction.

Q: Is Autism Linked to Criminality?

A: While autism does not have a direct link to criminality, those with autism may be at greater risk of contact with police due to a public lack of understanding on how to interact with them. Additionally, the sensitivities and triggers of those with autism put them at greater risk for harming those around them, who may not understand that the behaviors stem from autism.

Finally, many with autism have trouble finding work, which may lead to other means of providing for oneself, such as through criminal actions.

Q: Is It Illegal to Discriminate Against Autistic People?

A: In the United States, discriminating against those with autism could be deemed illegal in many circumstances. Those with autism have the right to equal treatment. This means that they have every right to employment, education, healthcare, and housing. If the discrimination is violent or a form of neglect, the mistreatment could bring legal charges.

Q: Can Autism Be Used as a Criminal Defense?

A: Autism itself is not grounds for a criminal defense. However, autism should be brought to the attention of the jury, the judge, and others in the criminal justice system. Autism is complicated, and those who have it often have a unique set of experiences with it. Autism is not an indicator of violence or illegal behavior.

Defending Those With Autism

If you or a loved one suffers from autism and may be facing the criminal justice system, it is important that you have representation who understands the challenges in front of you and can help you navigate them. The Law Offices of Nellie L. King is here to ensure that you feel seen, heard, and represented. Contact our offices today to find out more.

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