Autism and Crime: Is There a Dangerous Connection?

Media often draws connections between autism and criminal behaviour, using sensational headlines like, “Study finds autism and abuse are more common in serial killers.” This headline was featured in the UK’s Daily Mail, referencing a study by Allely, Minnis, Thompson, et al. in 2014. Similarly, Gary McKinnon, diagnosed with autism during an investigation into his alleged hacking of the US defence system, was labelled as orchestrating “the biggest military hack of all time.” Additionally, the media highlighted that Adam Lanza, the gunman in the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, reportedly had an autism diagnosis.

Such portrayals are deeply concerning, given the influential role of the media in shaping public perceptions. Media narratives can significantly influence public beliefs about the relationship between mental health conditions and violence (Philo, Secker, Platt, et al., 1994). Recently, the public has been inundated with rare cases linking serious criminal offences to autistic individuals. As a result, there is a growing, albeit misguided, belief that autism inherently leads to criminal behaviour. However, neither scientific research nor the plethora of sensational media reports substantiate this claim.

The journal Autism reaches a broad audience, extending well beyond the academic community. In this article, we aim to dispel the misconception that autism is linked to criminal behavior, shedding light on the limited research available and highlighting how negative stereotypes can be perpetuated by media coverage.

King and Murphy (2014) conducted an extensive review of studies investigating the relationship between autism and criminal activity. Their findings suggest that, overall, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that individuals with autism are more prone to criminal behaviour compared to those without autism. However, the research they examined presented conflicting results.

Some studies indicated that autistic individuals are less likely to commit certain offences, such as probation violations and property crimes (Cheely, Carpenter, Letourneau et al., 2012; Kumagami & Matsuura, 2009). Another study found that autistic individuals are no more likely to engage in violent crimes than the general population (Woodbury-Smith, Clare, Holland et al., 2006).

Contrary to public perception linking autism to criminality, experts suggest that individuals with autism are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators. Research by Trundle, Grace; Jones, Katy A; Ropar, Danielle; and Egan, Vincent (May 2022) highlights this disparity. Additionally, children with disabilities are approximately three times more likely to experience abuse or neglect compared to their nondisabled peers (Sullivan, P.M. & Knutson, J.F., 2000).

On the other hand, some studies indicate that individuals with autism may have a higher propensity for certain types of offenses, such as arson (Hare, Gould, Mills et al., 1999; Mouridsen, Rich, Isager et al., 2008), sex offenses (Cheely et al., 2012; Kumagami & Matsuura, 2009), and assault and robbery (Cheely et al., 2012).

Meanwhile, researchers at the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, argue that the criminal justice system (CJS) is failing to adequately support autistic individuals. A survey cited in the Equality and Human Rights Commission report from June 2020 revealed that a significant majority of autistic clients did not receive the necessary support or accommodations.

Interpreting research on autism and offending requires careful consideration. Many studies are based on small, non-representative samples that lack comparisons with individuals without autism, making it challenging to generalise their findings to the broader autism population. For instance, some studies have identified a higher prevalence of autism among individuals in high-security hospitals (e.g., Hare et al., 1999; Scragg & Shah, 1994). However, this does not imply that a significant portion of the autism community poses a heightened risk to society.

While there are isolated case reports documenting individuals with autism exhibiting criminal behaviour (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1988; Mawson, Grounds & Tantam, 1985), it’s essential to avoid making broad generalizations based on these individual instances. This caution applies whether the reports come from academic research or media sources. Often, it’s the atypical characteristics highlighted in these cases, such as the unusual and random acts of violence observed by Mawson et al. (1985), that initially capture attention for further analysis.

GP and serial killer Harold Shipman

The potential for misinterpretation of press reports, especially those claiming to be based on research, is concerning. For instance, a study by Allely et al. (2014) suggested that a significant number of mass or serial killers may have neurodevelopmental conditions like autism. However, the study had several limitations, including a lack of rigorous research and reliance on online sources like instead of peer-reviewed literature. The cases studied were also from atypical settings, such as secure hospitals, which do not represent the general population. Importantly, many of the mass/serial killers with autism in the study had also experienced other psychosocial risk factors, such as physical or sexual abuse. This led the researchers to conclude that a combination of neurodevelopmental and environmental factors, rather than autism alone, contributes to extreme acts of violence. Despite these nuanced findings, headlines like “Recipe for a serial killer? Childhood abuse, autism, and head injuries are more common in murderers” can easily be misinterpreted by the general public to suggest that autistic people are more likely to become murderers. In reality, the study focused only on rare cases of mass and serial killers, not murderers in general.

Autistic individuals are generally less likely to offend and more likely to be victims of crime compared to the general population (e.g., Beadle-Brown, Guest, Richardson, et al., 2014). However, there may be a small subset of people with autism who are at increased risk of committing crimes, influenced by a complex interplay of internal and external factors, much like any offender. Existing research on autism and criminality is limited and complex. While more rigorous studies are needed, it would be more beneficial to focus on understanding the specific factors that contribute to criminal behaviour in some individuals who are autistic, rather than generalising about the entire heterogeneous autism population.

To find out about how I AM can offer support contact us at or give us a call on 0161 866 8483

Share this