Young people with autism are more likely to be charged with a serious offence and are imprisoned at a similar rate to those without autism, despite lower rates of convictions, according to a study recently published in Autism.

The study sought to address the widely held belief that people with autism are more likely to engage with criminal behaviour. To do this, the researchers examined the prevalence of criminal justice system interactions among young adults with and without autism, and considered whether offence types differ between these groups.

Young people with autism interacted with the criminal justice system at lower rates compared to those without autism

The researchers tracked a national birth cohort of 1,197 people with autism and 147,879 people without autism born in New Zealand until their 25th birthday, detecting criminal justice system interactions from age 17 onwards using linked health and criminal justice system data.

The findings revealed that young people with autism interacted with the criminal justice system at lower rates compared to those without autism. However, there were considerable differences in the types of offences these young people were charged with. For example, among those charged with an offence, people with autism were more likely to be charged with a serious offence, punishable by two or more years in prison.

The results could indicate that the New Zealand CJS is being responsive to people with autism and effectively diverting them out of the system. More widely, this could be the result of a growing recognition and understanding of autism with the CJS and could indicate steady progress towards a more accommodating system.

Certain behaviours common among autistic individuals might adversely affect sentencing

However, it is important to note that while the risk of involvement at the police and courts level is significantly lower among those with autism compared to those without, the risk of incarceration is not. In fact, the findings show that conditional on being charged with an offence, young people with autism have higher rates of incarceration (13%) compared to those without autism (8%).

This could be because certain behaviours common among autistic individuals (such as limited expression of emotion, gaze aversion and difficulties with discourse management) all have the potential to adversely affect sentencing.

Furthermore, given young adults with autism who were charged with offences had more serious charges against them in comparison with young people who were not autistic, the higher incarceration rate identified may reflect and be appropriate to the type and seriousness of the charges.

Autism must be recognised during legal proceedings to prevent disadvantageous outcomes

However, the authors note: “It is important to consider whether these young people had been identified as autistic before or at any stage during the formal legal proceedings. If autism is not recognised during legal proceedings, autism-related accommodations will be absent and may create serious disadvantage for the autistic young person and contribute to discriminatory practice within the court and wider legal systems.

“Limited or uninformed understandings of autism or a tendency to interpret court-room behaviours, such as a lack of eye contact or apparent lack of remorse, through a neurotypical lens can result in harsher penalties, including incarceration, for young people with autism.”

The researchers therefore conclude that it is “timely to consider this issue in more depth.” They continue: “This should include consideration as to how prior diagnoses of autism and understandings of individuals’ needs within other sectors and services should inform the CJS through data linkage.”