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.