Autism Spectrum, Risk Behavior, and Law Involvement: Contrbutions of Theory of Mind and Executive Function

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)



Are young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) overrepresented in the criminal justice system? Research is inconclusive. However, examining the relation of risk behaviors and law involvement to the core features of ASD may be a more useful than examining prevalence per se (Woodbury-Smith, 2014).


We sought to explore pathways by which individuals with ASD may be at risk for criminal justice involvement: a direct path in which ASD increases the likelihood of risky and unlawful behaviors, or an indirect path in which persons with ASD may react poorly to the social demands of interactions with law enforcement around lesser offenses, e.g., traffic violations, to escalate the situation. In this exploratory study, we tested cognitive and social-cognitive functions associated with ASD, but that also vary in the general population, to explore their relation to risk behavior among college-aged males, both neurotypical and with ASD.


Participants were 40 college aged males, 12 with ASD. Measures included both self-report and direct observations. We combined correlated scores from the AQ and SRS-2 (Baron-Cohen, Hoekstra, Knickmeyer, & Wheelwight, 2006; Constantino, 2012) to create an autism index. We assessed theory of mind and executive function using report, Basic Empathy Scale (Joliffe & Farrington, 2006) and BRIEF-A (Roth, Isquith, & Gioia, 2013), and behavior, Flanker (Eriksen & Eriksen, 1974), Go/NoGo (Filmore, 2006), Wisconsin Card Sort (Grant & Berg, 1948), Reading the Mind in the Eyes (Baron-Cohen, et al. 2001), and Mentalistic Interpretation (Channon & Crawford, 2010). Risk behaviors, assessed by self-report, included general risk proneness (de Haan et al., 2011), antisocial behavior (Cho, Martin, Conger, & Widaman, 2010), and risk behavior and involvement with the law (arrest, probation, incarceration; MSALT, http://www.rcgd.isr.umich.edu/msalt/researchers.htm).


Concurrent predictions were tested across the entire sample, yielding several key results. Impulsivity as indicated by Flanker reaction time (r = -.46, p < .01) and a high autism index (partial r = .35, p < .05) predicted criminal justice involvement, but elevated autism index scores were not associated with any risk behaviors per se. In fact, a low autism index and poor executive function (self-report; Go-No Go inhibition errors) predicted proneness to risk (adjusted r-square = .39, p < .001). Race (white) and impulsivity (Flanker RT) predicted antisocial behavior (adjusted r-square = .15, p < .05). Impulsivity (Flanker and Go/No-Go RT) and race (white) predicted unsafe/unlawful risk behavior (adjusted r-square = .16, p = .05).


We found that the ASD index predicted law involvement, but not risk behaviors. Executive function, but not theory of mind, contributed to risk. We believe these results are consistent with an indirect pathways hypothesis. Because of failure to regulate social behavior in ways that might keep minor transgressions or altercations from becoming more serious, aspects of ASD such as compromised executive function may place these individuals at risk for a cascade of negative events that result in justice involvement. Results are limited by sample size and age, and will be discussed in the context of preliminary follow-up data from college-aged males diagnosed with ADHD.