Research on Criminal Offenses Committed by People with Asperger’s

A recent study in one of England’s high-security psychiatric hospitals estimated that approximately 2% of the hospital’s male population had Asperger’s (AS), now called high functioning autism. This significantly exceeds the 0.36% prevalence estimated for the general population. This over-representation of AS was subsequently confirmed in two other English high-secure units.

Asperger’s and criminal offenses:
  • Both alcohol and drug abuse, as well as drug offenses have been reported in this population, although drug abuse is comparatively rare.
  • Epidemiological studies indicate that people with AS do commit sexual offences, but there is evidence that the rates of sexual offending in general – and of child sex offences in particular – are lower among offenders on the autism spectrum.
  • Violence in a community sample was more common among those with AS, and there is evidence that offenders on the autism spectrum are more likely to have previous convictions for assault. Similar rates of violent offending by people on the spectrum have been reported in high-secure units in England. 
  • There is growing evidence that people with AS are more likely to commit fire-setting offenses than people without the disorder.

A number of factors may mediate offending in people with AS:
  • aggressive behavior
  • circumscribed interests
  • comorbid psychiatric conditions (e.g., bipolar affective disorder, depression, antisocial personality disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, and schizophrenia)
  • hyperactivity/impulsivity
  • inattention
  • late diagnosis
  • neuropsychological impairment
  • poor educational achievement
  • social exclusion
  • substance abuse
  • truancy

Another study revealed that offenders on the autism spectrum spend more time (11.26 years on average) in high-secure settings than offenders with other psychiatric disorders. The relatively longer stay may be responsible for the over-representation of people with AS in English high-secure units.

People on the autism spectrum held in secure units are more vulnerable to exploitation, bullying and intimidation by virtue of their “odd” behavior and social naivety. The risks arising from these factors are compounded by their inability to articulate their frustrations appropriately.  People on the spectrum who behave in an exemplary manner in a particular environment may re-offend if they are transferred to a less appropriate setting or an unfamiliar one with a new set of rules and routines. Among this group of offenders, a lack of comprehension of the consequences of their criminal behavior, as well as their egocentric justification of their acts, further increase the risk of re-offending following transfer to less secure conditions or discharge into community placements.

The majority of AS offenders held in high-secure units are (a) detained under the mental health category of mental impairment, (b) transferred as sentenced prisoners, (c) transferred prior to sentencing, and (d) have committed sexual offenses. In most cases, the index offenses have taken place in the context of substance abuse.

In summary, research suggests that offenders with AS are more likely to commit (a) offenses of a sexual nature, (b) fraud, (c) fire-setting offenses, and (d) drug offenses, but less likely to commit violent offenses.

Further research of a clinical nature within the AS offender population is greatly needed. More specifically, the prevalence of AS among those detained in medium and low-secure psychiatric facilities is needed to create services for the vast majority of offenders with the disorder who find themselves detained for longer than necessary due to the lack of knowledge of methods of rehabilitation.


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