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.