Autism and Criminal Justice

We are a group of professionals, advocates, self-advocates and parents who have been involved for years in efforts to increase understanding of autism and neurodiversity in the criminal justice system.

The recent high-profile case of Sam Bankman-Fried has thrown light on these issues.

This website is aimed at providing information and resources for professionals in criminal justice, as well as autistic adults with other forms of neurodiversity and their families and support networks.

If you would like to share your own story on this page, please get in touch with us.

Sam Bankman-Fried (ongoing)

Many people are familiar with the media coverage of the collapse of Sam’s company FTX and his subsequent arrest and fraud conviction. What is less well-known is Sam’s autism diagnosis and how this may have impacted the interpretation of some of his behaviors during interviews and his trial.

Sam faced up to 110 years in prison; his lawyers proposed a period of supervised release instead. He was sentenced to 25 years on March 28. Find out more… 


Kenneth French (2019) 

Kenneth is described by family as severely developmentally disabled. In 2019, at a Costco in California, he was shot and fatally wounded by an off-duty police officer. Kenneth, who was non-verbal and had never met the officer before, had pushed the officer to the ground during a moment of agitation while they were both waiting in line.

Despite Kenneth’s parents immediately intervening and trying to explain their son’s disability, the officer proceeded to fire at them ten times, severely wounding the parents—who had their backs to the officer at the time—and killing Kenneth.

Kenneth’s parents successfully sued for damages. But the case that sought one count of voluntary manslaughter and two counts of assault with a firearm ended in a mistrial and, in February 2024, it was announced that the police officer would not be retried. Find out more…

Charles Kinsey (2016)

In 2016, Charles, a behavior therapist, was shot in the leg by a police officer in Florida while attempting to retrieve his 27-year-old autistic patient, Arnaldo Rios Soto, who had wandered away from his group home. The officer said he had been aiming at Arnaldo, who he believed was threatening Charles with a gun. 

Footage shows that at the time of the shooting, Charles was lying on the ground with his hands up, pleading with officers not to shoot and explaining that Arnaldo was holding a toy truck, not a weapon. After being shot, Charles was handcuffed and left bleeding on the ground for approximately 20 minutes before receiving medical attention.

The officer who shot Charles faced legal action, but was ultimately found not guilty of attempted manslaughter, though he was convicted of culpable negligence, a misdemeanor. Find out more…

Jack and John Elder Robison (2007)

After facing up to 60 years in prison for his chemistry experiments, in 2009, 19-year-old Jack was found innocent on three counts of malicious explosion and one count of possessing explosives with the intent to harm people or property. 

Both Jack and his father John are autistic.

John tells their stories in his book Raising Cubby, where extensive consideration is given to issues with the criminal justice system in relation to autism. Find out more…

Darius McCollum (1980+)

In 1980, 15-year-old Darius was arrested for driving a subway train. Darius had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. To date, he has been arrested 32 times for impersonating New York City bus drivers and subway conductors, commandeering hundreds of trains and buses over three decades. His deep fascination with transit began in childhood, offering him refuge from school bullies and leading to a memorized knowledge of the entire subway system by age 8. 

Despite his actions causing no harm or damage, he has spent a significant portion of his life in maximum security prisons for transit-related offenses.

Darius is the subject of the 2016 documentary Off the Rails: The Darius McCollum Story  Find out more…

The cases of Kenneth French and Charles Kinsey, included in the Stories section of this website, indicate how behaviors by autistic individuals can be misundertstood, with tragic results. This is why in recent years, autism groups across the nation have reached out to local police and law enforcement agencies to develop training for police officers in understanding autism and related behaviors. 

The link below to the training developed by a Bay Area police department discusses some of the misunderstood behaviors and how law enforcement might respond.

For more information on autism training for law enforcement, please reach out through our contact form.

Information for Law Enforcement (Autism Speaks; 2018)

A one-page guide put together by the charity Autism Speaks. There is a list of potential signs of autism to help police officers recognize when they are interacting with autistic individuals, as well as specific guidance on how to respond and recommendations for training programs.

Pathways to Justice™: Get the Facts (The Arc; 2015)

A two-page guide on autism and the criminal justice system, which includes facts such as “1 in 68 children has been identified with autism” and explains some relevant terminology, for example, “Do not mistake echolalia—repeating what you say—as rude behavior.”

Autism Risk & Safety Management (Dennis Debbaudt)

A wide range of resources from former private investigator Dennis Debbaudt. The website is aimed at law enforcement agencies who are considering providing training to their officers on how to deescalate interactions with autistic individuals.

SF police praised for autism training video (AASCEND; 2016)

Short clip of a news report on the autism training that the San Francisco Police Department now offers its staff, featuring interviews with experts, law enforcement officers and, most importantly, autistic individuals themselves.

Autistic individuals may be at their most vulnerable point when appearing in American courtrooms as criminally-charged defendants.

Under this kind of stress, many such individuals often will exhibit behavior that judges, prosecutors, jury members, and other observers (including the media) find confusing, disrespectful, dismissive, and irritating.

Examples of courtroom behavior often associated with autistic individuals include foot-tapping, talking in a rambling, "word salad" manner, seeming disinterest, and reluctant eye contact.

That behavior -- and the misinterpretation of it -- too often influences the direction of prosecution, the outcome of verdicts, and the severity of sentences. 

An autistic individual might be charged with a crime without having malicious intent. In many circumstances, common sense serves jurors well when determining whether defendants possess the level of awareness necessary to make their actions criminal. But our intuitions are frequently wrong when assessing the state of mind of a neurodiverse individual.

These realities must eventually be understood by court personnel and attorneys and accommodated by the system.

Public Defenders Office FAQ (Autism Society & LRIDD; 2023)

A two-page guide for defense attorneys representing autistic clients who have been charged with criminal offenses. Suggestions range from accommodations like role-playing courtroom norms in advance to considerations such as the low recidivism rates of autistic offenders.

5 Facts Attorneys Need to Know (The Arc; 2015)

A two-page guide for attorneys working with people who have autism or a range of other forms of neurodiversity. Readers are reminded at the end of the guide of how prison sentences are disproportionately harmful and that unconventional communication styles do not imply unreliability to testify.

Autism in the Criminal Justice System (Taylor, Mesibov & Debbaudt; 2009)

Judge Kimberly Taylor, Dr. Gary Mesibov and former private investigator Dennis Debbaudt urge judges and attorneys not to misinterpret behaviors typical of those with autism as evidence of guilt, indifference or lack of remorse.

Brief Report: Judicial Attitudes Regarding the Sentencing of Offenders with High Functioning Autism (Berryessa; 2016)

An Assistant Professor at Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice reports on interviews with 21 California Superior Court Judges on the sentencing of offenders with high-functioning autism. The judges were generally concerned about the criminal justice system’s ability to effectively help or offer appropriate sentencing options for such offenders. A large majority stated that they would likely not want to incarcerate someone with high-functioning autism because of how damaging that environment would likely be for them.

Autistic people may struggle to navigate the complex social dynamics that occur in legal settings. They may be very vulnerable to victimization and exploitation by bullying, coercion or manipulation. 

Autism includes both verbal and non-verbal communication differences. This means that autistic people may misread verbal and non-verbal cues given by other people, which can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. 

Additionally, autistic people may give verbal and non-verbal cues that do not reflect the social context and misrepresent their internal state. For example, they may appear bored, disinterested, or fidgety, even while they are following a situation closely.  

Another example occurs in verbal exchanges; to answer a question accurately an autistic person may run through all the permutations and approach the question comprehensively, which can lead to what appears to be over-inclusivity and evasiveness. 

They may also give short answers, not recognizing the context for a question, which again may come across as being evasive. Both of these behaviors, in a prison context, could be seen as non-compliance or even mockery, leading to trouble with staff and other prisoners.

One of the diagnostic characteristics of autism is restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests and activities. Adherence to routines can cause an array of problems, as can thinking rigidly, or being inflexible. Additionally, sensory hypersensitivities are extremely common in autism, including constant noise, loud sounds, bright lights, etc. This sort of environment may trigger an array of problematic behaviors.  

Autism behind bars (Hess; 2020)

A good summary of the kinds of abuse and mental health problems that autistic prisoners are especially vulnerable to and what can be done to minimize the risks.

Autism behind bars: a review of the research literature and discussion of key issues (Robertson & McGillivray; 2015)

A summary of the presence and type of challenges faced by prisoners with autism. The paper includes case illustrations and an introduction that provides a good overview of the difficulties at all levels of involvement with the criminal justice system. The researchers also highlight the serious lack of academic attention given to these issues despite the concerns regarding justice and the potential impact on community safety.

‘People don’t like you when you’re different’: Exploring the prison experiences of autistic individuals (Vinter, Dillon & Winder; 2020)

Interviews with seven autistic men who are serving sentences for sexual convictions in a UK prison. The paper also makes practical recommendations for prisons based on its findings.

Development and implementation of autism standards for prisons (Lewis, Pritchett, Hughes & Turner; 2015)

This paper outlines a framework to help prisons address the needs of prisoners with autism, as illustrated by the work of a young offenders institution in the UK.

Characterization of autism spectrum disorder inside prison (Peraire, Cantos, Sampedro-Vidal, Bonet-Mora & Arnau-Peiró; 2023)

On the basis of a systematic review of the relevant literature, the authors of this study recommend prisons adapt their infrastructure for autistic prisoners by, for example, providing training to prison staff and raising awareness of neurodiversity among prisoners.

The Arc's Criminal Justice initiative is working to ensure safe, fair and just treatment of neurodiverse individuals and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities when interacting with the criminal justice system. See the section How You Can Help for ways to contribute.

The Prison Policy Initiative provides an advocacy toolkit for anyone working to reform the prison system in the US. Worth Rises also has a Take Action section that they regularly update with new prison reform campaigns. 

The Association for Autism and Neurodiversity runs regular free online sessions to connect with other autistic people or parents of autistic people.

Neurodiversity is an increasingly popular framework for describing differences in cognitive approaches, learning styles, social abilities, etc. It de-emphasizes pathology and highlights the fact that many differences are of degree rather than kind.

Neurodiversity re-conceptualizes and incorporates a number of conditions, including ADHD, autism, and learning differences, as conferring both strengths and weaknesses that depend heavily on context. 

These conditions should not be described as “needing cures” but rather should be recognized as part of the normal array of human differences. Autism, for example, is a life-long condition that affects the way someone experiences and relates to the world around them.

A strengths-based approach to neurodiversity and autism

Basic terms and definitions

Handbook of Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Law (Volkmar, Loftin, Westphal & Woodbury-Smith; 2021)

A collection of essays aimed at researchers, clinicians, graduate students and professionals in related fields. The book covers such topics as: people with autism as victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime (including violence, stalking, sexual exploitation and cybercrime); key considerations for attorneys; alternative approaches for first responders involving individuals with autism; legal assessment issues (including witness protection and postconviction diagnoses); and legal outcomes (including case law, prevention, service provisions in correctional settings and rights and support systems).

Autism and the criminal justice system: An analysis of 93 cases (Slavny-Cross, Allison, Griffiths & Baron-Cohen; 2022)

An investigation into the extent to which autism-related vulnerabilities are taken into account at each stage of the criminal justice system. They find, for example, that among the cases studied, 59% of prosecution barristers and 46% of judges said or did something during the trial that suggested they lacked an adequate understanding of autism. The researchers also found that, compared with their non-autistic clients, lawyers were 7.58 times more likely to worry about their autistic clients’ effective participation in court and 3.83 times more likely to worry that their autistic clients would self‐harm.

A Scoping Review of Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System (Railey, Love & Campbell; 2019)

Some of the findings of this review include: the prevalence of individuals with autism ranged from 0.3% to 27% in the criminal justice settings studied; autistic individuals may interact with the criminal justice system as either victims or perpetrators, with the most common calls to law enforcement officers involving elopement, aggression or medical emergency; perceptions of the criminal justice system by the autism community were marked by reports of lack of knowledge of autism, stigma and calls for more training; law enforcement officers also frequently expressed a need for more training around characteristics of autism and how to respond appropriately.

A Systematic Review of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System (King & Murphy; 2014)

On the basis of research that had been performed up until 2014, this paper tentatively concludes that people with autism are not over-represented in the criminal justice system, while also highlighting the poor quality of much of the relevant literature available at that time.

Personal experiences of the Criminal Justice System by individuals with autism spectrum disorders (Helverschou, Steindal, Nøttestad & Howlin; 2018)

Interviews with nine offenders on their experiences with the Norwegian criminal justice system. We include it here partly to illustrate the benefits to both offenders and wider society that are possible when the right systems are put in place.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developmental Disabilities, and the Criminal Justice System (Dubin; 2021)

A brutally honest book exploring how autistic traits can lead to legal issues, advocating for understanding and preventive measures. Dubin recommends strategies for avoiding criminal entanglement and ensuring fair treatment in the justice system, drawing from firsthand experience and an extensive review of the existing literature.

AND JUSTICE FOR ALL… UNLESS YOU HAVE AUTISM What the Legal System Needs to Know About People With Autism Spectrum Disorder (Doyle & Iland; 2016)

Based on decades of personal and professional experience, sisters Doyle and Iland emphasize the importance of understanding autism within the legal system. They outline how characteristics of autism can affect interactions with law enforcement and judicial proceedings, offering suggestions for effectively communicating these challenges to ensure fair treatment. Key points include the relevance of autism diagnoses in legal contexts, the necessity of educating police and legal personnel about autism and the advocacy for alternative interventions over traditional punitive measures to better support autistic individuals involved in legal issues.

Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (Baron-Cohen, Tager-Flusberg & Cohen; 2000)

A foundational text in exploring how humans develop a ‘theory of mind’: the ability to understand and infer the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. It serves as an essential sourcebook for researchers, clinicians and scholars in psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience who are interested in the differences between how a theory of mind is developed in neurotypical vs. neurodiverse minds.

Adam (Hugh Dancy & Rose Byrne; 2009)

A film about the relationship between a man with autism and his neighbor in which the man’s innocent behaviors are often misinterpreted by others. 

About the Law and Psychiatry Division at Yale (Yale University; 2023)

The Division of Law and Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine has faculty with expertise in the assessment of autistic people in the forensic/legal context.

This website is produced and funded by a mom and dad who observed the public behavior of Sam Bankman-Fried and saw reflections of their own adult son. This eventually resulted in a remarkable collaboration of renowned experts and informed, involved parents to emphasize the myriad challenging aspects of autism’s collision with law enforcement and the legal system.

We are currently looking for a volunteer. This website is a new project and a living resource and we expect to continue spending up to a few hours each week keeping the website up to date. If you have previous experience managing a website and would like to help us out, we would love to hear from you.

Questions? Comments? Feedback? Get in touch!