Effective management of inmates on the autism spectrum: When low social competence looks like defiance.

Author:Goorley, Harmony
Position:VIEW FROM THE LINE - Report

Occurring in one in every 68 children, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016, rates of autism have significantly increased over the past few decades. The autistic condition now impacts one to two percent of the American population. Despite the strides made in properly diagnosing and treating children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), little research explores crime and autism or adult outcomes for those with ASD. While there is no reliable data on the prevalence of autism in the incarcerated population, correctional staff universally agrees that housing one inmate with ASD quickly consumes custodial resources. (1) Research on autism, training manuals and treatment curriculums are overwhelmingly geared towards low-functioning children on the autism spectrum. Given the greater likelihood of higher-functioning individuals on the spectrum becoming incarcerated, this leaves correctional facilities with few guidelines for effective management of adolescents and adults with ASD.

From intake to release, high-functioning inmates with ASD (formerly known as Asperger's Syndrome), are often perceived as emotionless, cold, impulsive and defiant. Lacking strong social and coping skills, these inmates struggle to engage with officers, mental health staff, peers and cellmates. They may even receive frequent rule violations and find little programming and vocational success while incarcerated. (2) Without a clear understanding of the disorder, classic features of ASD are easily mistaken for defiance. (3) On the flipside, given their social naivete, inmates with ASD are vulnerable to in-custody victimization, including sexual abuse. (4) Understanding this condition will improve system efficiencies and protect inmates with ASD who enter facilities.

To formally diagnose ASD, persistent deficits in the following domains must be present: emotional, communication, social and sensory, along with repetitive behaviors or interests. (5) Social deficits include failures in turn-taking, reduced interest in sharing emotions or even blatant failures to respond to typical social exchanges. Difficulty using and understanding nonverbal communication may also be present. Ultimately, a diagnosis of ASD results in deficits in creating, fostering and understanding relationships. Restricted and repetitive behavioral patterns might include repeating phrases or lining up items. Ritualized behaviors and a strong fascination with unusual objects or...

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