Autism: A basic guide for prison officers

In this article Dr Mitzi Waltz, disability consultant, trainer and writer gives a brief overview of autism for prison officers. The guide covers various aspects of autism that may assist prison officers in supporting autistic prisoners including sensory issues, communication and potential vulnerability. This is however a basic guide and Dr Waltz encourages all prison officers to seek further support, information and training on autism. 

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Autism: A basic guide for prison officers

 “I never really understood what the word ‘depression’ meant, but after spending a week in prison I did. I started to think about self-harming and I had never done that before.”

This quote is from an offender with autism who spent only a short time in prison. After his release, he became withdrawn and fearful of what might happen if he had to return. Just two things kept him from falling apart completely, he said: regular contact with his family, and one prison officer who took the time to listen to him and to explain what was going on. 

Prison officers in the UK system play multiple roles: support and enforcement, care and control. They deal with fast-moving and complex social situations, and are charged with ensuring that prisoners are safe and healthy. Since autism spectrum conditions affect about 1 percent of the general population, all prison officers will encounter people on the autism spectrum at some time—but most have not had training to work with this group, and so you may not know what to expect or what to do. This guide provides the basics, but it is important to seek out more information and training whenever possible.

What is autism?

Autism is a disability that affects social understanding, communication and behaviour. It occurs on a spectrum of severity, and every person with autism is very different. So, what worked with one person with autism may not be appropriate for others. Staff need to learn about individual profiles and respond on a case-by-case basis.

Autism often occurs with additional health conditions, and can affect how well the person is able to manage these. At least one-third of people with autism have an intellectual disability as well, and many more have specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. This can affect their ability to understand written or spoken instructions. Some people with autism are unable to speak, others may speak in an unusual way or talk endlessly about things they are interested in. 


It is not uncommon for adults to either have never been diagnosed, or for a diagnosis made in childhood to not be in their later health records. Diagnosis may have been made within the NHS, privately (because NHS waiting times for diagnosis are very long), or within the education system. Some parents choose not to ever tell their child that they have been diagnosed with autism. 

Some young people decide not to tell anyone that they have a diagnosis, or may not really understand what it means. Although diagnosis should be accompanied by helping the person to learn strategies for managing things that may be difficult for them, frequently this does not happen.

Some prisoners will have been diagnosed because of entering the criminal justice system. They will be coping with the impact of adult diagnosis in a negative situation, and may need counseling and advice urgently.

Autism and crime

People with autism are much more likely to be crime victims than criminals1, and are especially unlikely to be involved in premeditated violent crime or crime committed for personal gain. When they do end up in prison, the cause can be behaviour related to their autism (for example, obsessive behaviour that can turn into stalking or computer hacking,) or due to manipulation by others.

Autism and vulnerability in prison

Individuals with autism can be more vulnerable than others, and may therefore need additional support. Areas of particular concern in prison include:

•    May be more easily led and manipulated than other prisoners
•    More vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse
•    Less likely to understand and respond to facial expressions and body language, which can lead to not understanding place in prisoner hierarchies or being the target of bullying and violence
•    May lack outside contacts
•    Problems with self-care
•    Mental health problems
•    Heightened suicide risk

Because of these additional risks, prison officers may need to consider whether they need to be separated from the general population for their own safety, and whether particular arrangements need to be made for care, counselling and support.

Start by finding out whether there is already a specific plan in place for a prisoner with autism, said William Wormell of the UK Ministry of Justice. “An early reference from the Disability Liaison Officer or other medical professionals at the prison would allow staff working with the prisoner to be aware of any specific needs or behaviours that have been set out by the medical team there.” 

If there appears to be no existing plan, staff can request an assessment by the prison medical team and/or the local authority's social care team.

Differences in verbal communication

Communication problems that are part of autism can affect not only how the prisoner is able to communicate, but also how much of other people’s communication they understand. Prison officers should use direct, basic communication, and must take care to give extra time for individuals with autism to process what they have heard. Building trust will encourage communication.

It can help to think about these prisoners the way you would about an inmate who you know has had a brain injury. They may struggle to understand things, and may react unpredictably.

Some individuals with autism have severe communication problems. They may be non-verbal, and use gestures or behaviour as communication. Ask for help if you are unsure about what a prisoner is doing. 

Alternative and augmentative communication (AAC)—the use of written or visual communication, either on paper or on devices—can really help, even for prisoners who are usually able to communicate verbally. Some people on the autism spectrum lose the ability to speak coherently when they are anxious, frightened or angry. AAC tools can help bridge this gap.

Because of their difficulty with understanding other people’s emotions and communication, and their difficulty with communicating well, people with autism are highly unlikely to manipulate others, including prison officers – if they tell you something is going on, it’s probably true (although they may have misunderstood parts of the situation).

Sensory issues

Most people with autism also have significant differences in how they perceive the world. This can include being either very sensitive to or much less sensitive to sound, touch, smell or light. Obviously, in the typical prison environment this could create problems. Strategies such as permitting over-sensitive prisoners to use earplugs, headphones, dark glasses and so on can help, but sometimes environments may need to be modified or prisoners may need to be moved.

Sensory issues can cause severe distress, anxiety and agitation. They are often the cause behind behaviour problems, and can be so severe as to prevent learning, impact communication, and increase the risk of self-harm or aggression.

Because individuals with autism are so different from each other, there is never a “one size fits all solution”: best practice can be achieved through person-centred planning. “A longer-term plan, tailored specifically to each individual, is a practice to be encouraged where possible,” noted Wormell.


1.  Interactive Autism Network - What do we really know about autism and crime


National Autistic Society. Collection of resources, including free guide for CJS professionals:

Prison Reform Trust - Resources including the Prisoners’ Voices report about the experiences of inmates with intellectual disabilities and learning difficulties, including autism.

Author: Dr Mitzi Waltz

Date added: 03 November 2015