Offending, Social Vulnerability and Compliance in Autism: The Moderating Effect of Theory of Mind

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
K. L. Payne1, A. J. Russell2, M. Brosnan3 and K. L. Maras2, (1)Psychology, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom, (2)University of Bath, Bath, UNITED KINGDOM, (3)Centre for Applied Autism Research, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Background: People with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are reported to be disproportionately highly represented within the prison population. In a survey of 1,344 individuals with ASD from the general population, 37% reported that they had been forced or manipulated to do something that they did not want to do by someone they thought of as a friend - including criminal behaviours (National Autistic Society, 2014). Beyond this, little is known about the ASD offender profile and why they may offend. Wider literature suggests that social vulnerability and compliance may be factors relevant to ASD and related to offending, especially co-offending with others. In addition, Theory of Mind (ToM) abilities are theorised to be a core deficit in ASD and have been found to be impaired in criminal offenders (without ASD). This is pertinent as ToM has been suggested to have a moderating effect on social vulnerability, however, there is no data on the moderating effect of ToM upon compliance. To date, only one paper has examined ToM in criminal offenders with ASD and reported that the ASD offenders had better ToM than ASD non-offenders – but these differences were non-significant. To date, no single research paper has looked at social vulnerability, compliance and ToM in ASD populations with a focus upon criminal offenders.

Objectives: The study had two objectives: 1) to investigate whether ASD offenders typically offend alone or with other people; 2) to identify the extent to which social vulnerability and compliance distinguish criminal offenders with and without ASD, and to what extent does ToM moderate these relationships.

Methods: Seventy-nine participants with ASD (39 offenders; 40 non-offenders) and 78 typically developed (TD) participants (39 offenders; 39 non-offenders) completed the two sub-test version (vocabulary and matrix reasoning) of the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (Wechsler, 1999), the Social Vulnerability Scale (Pinsker et al., 2006), the Gudjonsson Compliance Scale (Gudjonsson, 1989) and the solo/co-offending questionnaire designed for this study.

Results: Results indicated ASD offenders were significantly more likely to commit crimes alone than with other people. Initial findings indicated increased social vulnerability and compliance within both ASD groups (offenders; non-offenders) and also the TD offender group when compared to TD non-offenders (controlling for IQ). However, when both ToM and IQ were controlled for, the results indicate that ToM moderated the differences observed between the groups.

Conclusions: Convicted offenders with ASD typically commit crimes alone as opposed to with others. The expected finding of increased social vulnerability and compliance in the ASD groups (offenders; non-offenders) and in the TD offenders when compared to TD non-offenders was removed when accounting for ToM. The findings are therefore consistent with the broader literature identifying deficits in ToM in both ASD populations and criminal offenders, which may explain the higher-than-expected prison population of people with ASD. Understanding more about the moderating effect of ToM will allow not only interventions to help increase awareness and reduce manipulation (into both offending and non-offending behaviours) but also could be used to design intervention/strategies for reducing recidivism.