Traits of ASD that May Influence Criminal Behavior

“I'm currently studying law and was wanting to know what some of the characteristic features are that predispose to criminal offending for teens with [high-functioning] autism?”

First of all, let me be clear that there is little to no evidence that teens on the autism spectrum engage in criminal behavior any more than the general population of similar age. Second, the following characteristics may apply to some “typical” teenagers, not just those with ASD:

1.   Social naivety and the misinterpretation of relationships can leave the autistic teen open to exploitation as a stooge. His or her limited emotional knowledge can lead to a childish approach to adult situations and relationships, resulting in social blunders (e.g., in the mistaking of social attraction or friendship for love).

2.   Overriding obsessions can lead to offenses (e.g., stalking, compulsive theft). Harshly reprimanding the teen can increase anxiety - and consequently a reflective thinking of the unthinkable that increases the likelihood of repeating the offense.

3.   Misinterpreting rules, particularly social ones, teens on the spectrum may find themselves unwittingly embroiled in offenses (e.g., date rape).

4.   Lacking motivation to change, these young people may remain stuck in a risky pattern of behavior.

5.   For those teens who have been traumatized by teasing, rejection, and bullying from their peer group, “revenge-seeking behavior” may become their method of establishing equality (i.e., to even the score).

6.   The teen’s tendency to misjudge relationships and consequences can result in a risky openness (i.e., dangerous self-disclosure) and the revealing of private fantasies which, although no more shocking than any teen’s, are best not revealed.

7.   Impulsivity, sometimes violent, can be a component of comorbid ADHD or of anxiety turning into panic.

8.   Difficulty in judging the age of others can lead the teenager into illegal relationships and acts (e.g., sexual advances to somebody under age).

9.   An innate lack of concern for the outcome can be problematic (e.g., an assault that is disproportionately intense and damaging). Young people on the spectrum often lack insight and deny responsibility, blaming someone else, which may be part of an inability to see their inappropriate behavior as others see it.

10.   An innate lack of awareness of the outcome can lead the teen to embark on actions with unforeseen consequences (e.g., fire-setting may result in a building’s destruction).

Many of the traits listed above affect the teen’s ability to make logical decisions, thus limiting his or her level of responsibility. Whether the teen is identified as an “offender” (as distinct from someone who has committed an offense) depends on chance factors in his or her environment (e.g., effectiveness of his/her supervision, the recognition of ASD and the understanding of those around.

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