Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are neurodevelopmental disorders which are characterised by impairments in social reciprocal interactions and communication and restricted, repetitive pattern of interests and behaviour.
We know from experience that prisoners which ASD are more vulnerable to bullying and victimisation.
Tragically, there are numerous individuals with ASD, or undiagnosed ASD, who go undetected throughout the whole criminal justice process. Lack of awareness of ASD and no routine screening for ASD are some of the primary explanations for why many individuals with ASD are not identified during the different stages of the criminal justice process.
There a growing awareness of the number of individuals with ASD who are in custody and not screened for ASD or are misdiagnosed (commonly with mental health conditions). Surprisingly, there is a real dearth of research investigating the experiences of individuals with ASD in custody. This also means that there is little knowledge to inform the design of appropriate services provided by practitioners within prison ASD support services.
Difficulties faced by prisoners with ASD
Despite a plethora of studies examined the offending behaviour of individuals with ASDs, there has been relatively little investigation into the difficulties experienced by these individuals when they enter prison. What little studies there have been suggest the existence of additional difficulties faced by this population within the prison environment. In the review of the literature, it has been identified that only four studies which explored the experience of individuals with ASD in the prison environment—all involved case studies and small samples. The small number of studies clearly highlighted that prisoners with ASD can face a number of difficulties within the prison environment such as poor relationships with prison staff and other inmates. Compared to their neuro-typical fellow inmates, the prison environment is experienced as particularly distressing and intense for a significant proportion of individuals with ASD.
We know from experience that prisoners which ASD are more vulnerable to bullying and victimisation. They are also more likely to be easily led and manipulated and are more vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse from other prisoners. The core deficits or impairments of ASD will also present a number of difficulties for individuals with ASD in the prison environment. For instance, they will likely have difficulty understanding and responding to other inmates’ facial expressions and body language. This will potentially cause them a number of issues such as understanding their place within the prisoner hierarchy.
Sensory hypersensitivity is also experienced by many individuals with ASD. For instance, rain on the window may sound like gun fire, and fingers on the scalp when washing hair may feel like razor blades. It is well known that prisons are extremely noisy environments (day and night) with banging doors, and other inmates talking and shouting. The enclosed nature and prisons’ structural design causes all these sounds to reverberate and they are amplified as a result. The everyday noise of a prison can be deafening for someone with ASD. Difficulties with social communication can also be an issue. Difficulties with understanding the non-literal language of other inmates can present a significant problem. Here is an example. If an individual with ASD overhears an inmate saying to another inmate that he was “going to rip his head off!” an individual with ASD would be surprised that this action had not actually been carried out. Individuals with ASD can also display rigid adherence to certain prison regimes and can be obsessive about the cleaning and organising routines they follow in their cell. As a result, much distress would be experienced if a guard were to carry out an unannounced room search
The importance of prisons gaining autism accreditation status
What is clear is that prisoners with ASD are not receiving the support they so desperately need and this is compounded by the fact that there is a lack of research being conducted to help highlight the issue and help inform practice and policy. The early identification of individuals with ASD in prison would enable appropriate care to be provided and risk of recidivism when they are eventually released to be managed and assessed more effectively. Surprisingly, to date, there has only been one study which has explored knowledge and understanding of ASD by prison staff. In her study, McAdam highlighted that many individuals with ASD do not receive the appropriate care that they need in the prison environment.
Numerous studies have indicated that the prevalence of ASD within the prison environment is higher than that found in the general population. Moreover, that there are many individuals with ASD who go undiagnosed or who are misdiagnosed as having, for instance, antisocial personality disorder. Although there are a number of prisons across the UK who are involved in pilot work, there is only one institution in the UK—Feltham, for young offenders—which has been awarded Autism accreditation and is deemed to be “autism friendly”. The main aim of Autism Accreditation is to improve autism practice across all areas of prison life and to address the difficulties commonly experienced by prisoners with ASD. Such measure also have the long-term aim of reducing the risk of reoffending in this subgroup. For over two years, Feltham has worked alongside the National Autistic Society (NAS) in order to improve the way in which prisoners with ASD are supported across all of these areas.
Unlocking the knowledge and experience of autism in the prison
Recognising the urgent need to address the lack of research in this area, lecturers at the University of Salford, Dr Clare Allely and Dr Toni Wood, have combined their expertise in a unique project involving questionnaires and semi-structured interviews of a broad section of prison staff as well as prisoners with ASD with the aim of increasing our understanding and recognition of the difficulties experienced by those with ASD and which areas could be improved on. All the knowledge gained will culminate in the development of a toolkit for prison staff in order to try and increase the identification, recognition and understanding of ASD within the prison environment.
Dr Clare Allely is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Salford and an affiliate member of the Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Centre (GNC) at Gothenburg University in Sweden. She is also an Honorary Research Fellow position in the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences affiliated to the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow. Clare holds a PhD in psychology from the University of Manchester.
Dr Toni Wood is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Salford. She holds a PhD in criminology from the University of Salford and has previously graduated with an MRes in Criminology and Socio Legal Studies from the University of Manchester. Prior to this, Toni worked in NHS mental health secure settings. Her main research interests are centred around health and well-being in prisons and the prisoner community.