Concerns about judgement of autistic adults

Autistic adults can be wrongly perceived as deceptive and lacking credibility, Flinders University researchers say, with this working against many caught in the legal system.

In the first study of its kind, a new paper released ahead of World Autism Awareness Day in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders asked 1,410 civilians to respond to video recordings with 30 adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and 29 non-ASD individuals to examine whether stereotypical behaviours associated with autism influenced people’s perceptions of the individual.

Common behaviours include gaze aversion, repetitive body movements, literal interpretations of figurative language and poor reciprocity.

Co-author Flinders Professor Robyn Young, author of Crime and Autism Spectrum Disorder:  Myths and Mechanisms (2015) with Emeritus Professor Neil Brewer, says “it’s unfortunate that many of the behaviours that are believed to be portrayed by people who are being deceptive, often erroneously, are also commonly seen among people on the autism spectrum”.

Autism expert Flinders Professor Robyn Young.

These behaviours can therefore disadvantage a person who has autism when they interact with the criminal judicial system, the Flinders University professors argue.

Professor Young regularly consults with the legal system to educate judges and juries about ASD so that an autistic person’s presentation will not be misinterpreted by people who do not understand their condition. “We have now extracted recent statistics suggesting that sentences of autistic people are on average higher than their non-autistic peers who have committed similar offences,” she says.

“If you ask most people how they determine if someone is not telling the truth, they will often refer to lack of eye contact or fidgety behaviour,” says lead author Dr Alliyza Lim.

“Even though our study actually showed that none of these behaviours individually were directly linked to a person being considered as less credible and more deceptive, overall autistic people are considered less reliable than their non-ASD peers.”

Autistic individuals may be erroneously perceived as deceptive and lacking credibility (2021) by A Lim, RL Young and N Brewer has been published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Springer Nature) DOI :10.1007/s10803-021-04963-4.

This research was supported by ARC Grant DP190100162, a Flinders University grant and the Hamish Ramsay Fund. The study was conducted as part of Dr Lim’s doctoral dissertation and part of the findings were presented at the 2020 conference of the American Psychology-Law Society, New Orleans, US.

The United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared 2 April as World Autism Awareness Day to highlight the need to help improve the quality of life of those with autism so they can lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society.

The UN says the rate of autism in all regions of the world is high and the lack of understanding has a tremendous impact on the individuals, their families and communities. The stigmatisation and discrimination associated with neurological differences remain substantial obstacles to diagnosis and therapies, an issue that must be addressed around the world.

April is also Autism Awareness Month in Australia. An Autism Awareness Australia report (2020) revealed 60.5% of adults with ASD surveyed had communication issues and 48% behaviour issues which led them to seek help.

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