The need for accommodations in prison for those with autism spectrum disorder

Neurodiversity is a real thing, especially in prison. 

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have sensory processing dysfunctions that make life behind bars unbearable. The anxiety and trauma caused by bright lights, loud sounds, unpredictable behavior from neighbors, and  trying to learn unwritten social rules makes incarceration for someone with ASD inarguably cruel and dangerous. That’s on a good day.

Because people with ASD often have difficulty communicating and understanding facial expressions and other nonverbal communications, they are frequently targeted by other inmates and subjected to physical and sexual abuse, bullying, and other forms of creative manipulation. People with more severe ASD may need assistance with self-care, suffer from poor concentration, and may not understand the intentions, good or bad, of those around them. They may also be unable to perform manual tasks that inmates are often assigned as part of their “jobs” while in custody. Incarcerated people with ASD or other forms of neurodiversity are a particularly vulnerable population that need to be better identified so that added protections can be put into place when needed.

Because ASD isn’t always obvious, it often goes undiagnosed, or completely misdiagnosed. There are differing levels of severity, and it presents differently in everyone who has it. Women with ASD are diagnosed far less often than men, possibly because women tend to be better at masking their symptoms to appear more like their neurotypical peers.

Americans With Disabilities Act  

From a legal perspective, ASD is a recognized disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because its symptoms impede typical daily activities. In a typical work or school setting, those with diagnosed ASD are legally entitled to various reasonable accommodations including environmental adjustments, and the support of a caregiver. 

Although Title II of the ADA protects individuals with mental health and intellectual disabilities from discrimination within the criminal justice system, as a practical matter, the level of support that is often needed for basic survival is just not available to inmates.  

With funding from the International Society for Autism Research, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute researched ways to enhance interactions between people with ASD and the legal system. See, “Autism and the Criminal Justice System: Policy Opportunity and Challenges” which offers guidance on how the legal system can better help people with ASD or other forms of  neurodiversity.      

Our understanding of what ASD is, what the diagnostic criteria are, and how common it is, seems to change by the day as more research and studies are completed. Whatever the future holds for how we collectively define this disability, we must be vigilant to ensure that the legislative intent of the ADA is applied fairly to neurodiverse people while in prison.