Aim of the project

There have been a number of criminal cases in which the defendant is reported to have a diagnosis, or a suspected diagnosis, of autism. The 5 key questions that a new project in Cambridge will address are:

1. What percentage of autistic people commit crimes, and which kinds of crimes, and is this percentage higher, the same or lower than would be expected in a non-autistic population?
2. In cases where an autistic person is the defendant in a criminal case, what factors contribute to the crime?
3. When an autistic person is the defendant in a criminal case, does their autism affect how the court case is conducted and affect sentencing?
4. What was the autistic person’s experience of the criminal justice system?
5. What policy recommendations may come out of this study?

Regarding question 2 above, factors that are not autism-specific that might contribute to the crime may include well-established factors such as educational level, poverty, experience of childhood neglect and abuse, being the victim of domestic or other kinds of abuse, provocation, history of drug abuse, psychosis, experience of being in the care system, and mental health. Finally, it may be that the experience of marginalisation may lead a person to feel embittered towards others and may also contribute to the crime.

Factors that may be autism-specific that might contribute to the crime in certain extreme circumstances may include key features of autism such as social naiveté, leading the autistic person to be easily manipulated; poor social judgement, leading them to make poor decisions, especially under conditions of stress and when they feel trapped or threatened by others; and communication difficulties, leading them to not consult others about how to solve a problem or misunderstanding a person’s intentions or meaning. Other autism-related factors that have been mentioned in some criminal cases include obsessive thinking, leading them to be unable to let go of a plan; black and white (binary) thinking, leading them to only consider two extreme scenarios; heightened anxiety, leading them to panic or feeling a need to take extreme actions; and executive dysfunction/weak central coherence, leading them to over-focus on one detail and not consider longer term consequences of actions.  Further, it has been suggested in some criminal cases that empathy difficulties associated with autism may lead them to struggle to imagine a victim’s perspective; or reduced social awareness, leading them to not see how society or the criminal justice system will view their behaviour.

Importance of research

We hope that this research will inform the public and judicial system and will lead to policy recommendations for possible reasonable adjustments that could be made for autistic defendants in order that lawyers, judges and the court system conduct fair trials.

Researchers involved

  • Dr Rachel Slavny

Key findings

This will be a 3 year project running from 2018