What Do We Really Know About Autism and Crime?
The teenager was worried. He heard stories about people with autism spectrum disorder who were accused of threatening violence. He had autism. Would he do something bad?
He confided in Matthew D. Lerner, then-director of the Spotlight social skills program for youth with autism near Boston. "I don't expect myself to do something like this," the boy told Lerner, "but the media is telling me that having this diagnosis might make me violent. Is this something I should be worried about?"
Lerner said he reassured the teen, but the question piqued his interest. Media speculation aside, what do we really know about autism and violent crime?
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,1 controlling strong emotions, and understanding other people's perspectives.2 They may have challenging behaviors that could attract police attention. However, they also tend to find rules helpful, and laws are "simply social rules of a particular type" that they could be expected to follow.3
Lerner wanted to know more. Years later, after leaving Spotlight, he pursued a doctorate in psychology at University of Virginia. There, he investigated the topic of criminal behavior in teens and young adults with "high functioning" ASD – that is, they had at least average intelligence and normal speech. The topic had attracted the attention of national media and the blogosphere, which speculated about whether this or that high-profile murderer had autistic traits. Some had implied that autism caused violent crime. "It was treated as the easy answer people were looking for," he said, although it unfairly stigmatized autism.
Given that level of interest, he expected to find extensive research on the topic. He was wrong.
Little research on autism and crime
Instead, he found case studies – in-depth examinations of a single person or case – and studies of people with ASD who were already in a prison or forensic hospital. Those studies provide insight into some criminals with autism, but what do they really say about autism?
Truthfully, not that much. These kinds of studies are considered "biased" because they only include people who already have legal troubles. They cannot answer the question of whether people with ASD as a group are any more or less likely to commit a crime than anyone else.
Several research studies have found either no link between autism and violent crime, or could not reach a conclusion about a link.3-4 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.5
After examining many studies, Lerner and his fellow researchers did not find a higher risk of violent crime by people with high functioning autism.6 Their article was published in 2012.
No evidence that autism causes violent crime
Two years later, he repeated that conclusion to a commission investigating the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, committed by a young man with a history of Asperger's Syndrome. Having an autism spectrum disorder "does not mean you are likely to commit a violent crime," testified Dr. Lerner, now assistant professor of clinical psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics at Stony Brook University.7 (The commission later concluded, "Autism Spectrum Disorder or other psychiatric problems neither caused nor led to his murderous acts."14)
Similarly, two British researchers looked at all the studies they could find of crime and autism. Their 2014 article lamented that "the poor quality of much of the research" and other factors made it hard to draw anything but "tentative conclusions."3
Still, the British article found that people with autism are "not disproportionately over-represented" in the criminal justice system nor do they gravitate toward certain crimes, such as arson, as some researchers have reported. They pleaded for more high-quality research, "rather than studies that examine populations that are not representative of all those with ASD."3 In other words, studies would need to look at people throughout a community, not just those in jails, psychiatric hospitals or institutions.
Study looks at juvenile charges and autism
Some American researchers tried to do just that. They looked at youth with autism in a region of South Carolina, and compared them against a database of youth charged in the state juvenile justice system. Only 32, or 5 percent, of the 609 teens with autism had been charged with an offense. Those 32 teens were less likely to have intellectual disability than the others.8
"We found that very few of the children in our study were being charged with crimes," said the lead researcher, Catherine Cheely Bradley Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Medical University of South Carolina. "The crimes the youth with ASD were charged with were very mild. Very few were being convicted. These are not violent, horrific crimes that these kids are participating in."
Her research team compared those 32 youth against a "control group" of 99 teens who also had been charged with a crime, but who didn't have autism. They found several differences between the two groups. Those with ASD:
- Had higher rates of crimes against people (such as assault),
- Had lower rates of property crimes (such as burglary), and
- Were more likely to be diverted to pre-trial intervention programs, and less likely to be prosecuted.
Another difference: the youth with autism were significantly more likely to be charged with disturbing schools or an offense that occurred at school. Those incidents likely accounted for many of the crimes against people, she said. Dr. Bradley wondered if the social demands of school, or bullying by other students, contributed to those problems. "The youth are potentially in situations with high social demands, and they might be more likely to engage in these lashing out, impulsive, aggressive behaviors," she said.
Compared to their nondisabled peers, U.S. students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended from school, referred to police or arrested for school-related incidents, and to be charged in the juvenile justice system.9-10
However, children with autism had a lower suspension and expulsion rate (3 percent) than students with disabilities as a whole (8 percent), according to 2011-2012 data from U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. Students with emotional disturbance had the highest suspension rate.11
People with autism more likely to be victims
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.12 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.13
"What has been missing from this debate is the fact that most of the legal contact that individuals with autism have is as victims," Dr. Lerner said.
Dr. Lerner hopes to see a greater understanding of people with autism by police, prosecutors and defense attorneys. His 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. Some states have allowed ASD to be used as a defense or in determining someone's competency to stand trial for a crime.6
Also, social problems 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.6
Future direction of autism-crime research
Would he like to see better research on autism and crime, research that would settle the question definitively of whether there is any link?
"I have mixed feelings," Dr. Lerner said. "As a scientist, I find it crucial to have that data so that we can contend with it. We can include it in educational strategies and make law enforcement aware of certain risk factors, so I do think it's useful. On the other hand, I'm wary of the effect of focusing on crime and specifically stigmatizing autism spectrum disorder. The data collection needs to be broader in general."
For example, rather than focusing on autism and criminal behavior, why not look at factors such as "profound isolation and loneliness," which can affect anyone, and the relationship to crime? he asked. "The more supportive and inclusive our community can be, the better."
- Kanne, S. M., & Mazurek, M. O. (2011). Aggression in children and adolescents with ASD: Prevalence and risk factors. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(7), 926-937. View abstract.
- Haskins, B.G. & Silva, J.A. (2006). Asperger’s Disorder and Criminal Behavior: Forensic-Psychiatric Considerations. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 34:374-84.
- King, C. & Murphy, G. H. (2014). A Systematic Review of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System. J Autism Dev Disord. 2014 Feb 28. View abstract.
- Mouridsen, S.E. (2011). Current status of research on autism spectrum disorders and offending. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 6(2012), 79-86.
- Mouridsen, S.E., Rich, B., Isager, T. & Nedergaard, N.J. (2008). Pervasive Developmental Disorders and Criminal Behavour: A Case Control Study. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol 2008 52:196.
- Lerner, M.D., Haque, O.S., Northrup, E.C., Lawer, L. & Bursztajn, H.J. (2012). Emerging perspectives on adolescents and young adults with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders, violence, and criminal law. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2012;40(2):177-90.
- Eaton-Robb, P. (2014, Jan. 17). Expert to Newtown panel: Violence, autism not tied. The Associated Press. Retrieved on June 30, 2014 from http://bigstory.ap.org/article/expert-newtown-panel-violence-autism-not-tied.
- Cheely, C.A., Carpenter, L.A., Letourneau, E.J., Nicholas, J.S., Charles, J. & King, L.B. (2012). The prevalence of youth with autism spectrum disorders in the criminal justice system. J Autism Dev Disord. 2012 Sep;42(9):1856-62. View abstract.
- Losen, D. and Martinez, T.A., Out of School & Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools (Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, 2013). [Quinn, M.M.,Rutherford, R.B., and Leone, P.E., Students with Disabilities in Correctional Facilities (Arlington, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, 2001); Larson, K.A. and Turner, K.D., Best Practices for Serving Court Involved Youth with Learning, Attention and Behavioral Disabilities (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice, 2002).]
- U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (2014, March 21). Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline). Issue Brief No. 1.
- Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services of U.S. Department of Education (2012). 31st Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2009. P. 77. Retrieved June 30, 2014 from http://www2.ed.gov/about/reports/annual/osep/2009/parts-b-c/index.html .
- Sullivan, P.M. & Knutson, J.F. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: a population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse Negl. 2000 Oct;24(10):1257-73. View abstract.
- Zablotsky B., Bradshaw, C.P., Anderson, C. & Law, P.A. (2013). The association between bullying and the psychological functioning of children with autism spectrum disorders. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2013 Jan;34(1):1-8. View abstract.
- Report of the Office of the Child Advocate, State of Connecticut. (2014, Nov. 21). "Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School." Retrieved on Dec. 2, 2014, from http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2014/images/11/21/office.of.the.child.advocate.report.pdf.pdf