A Cautionary Tale: Issues to Consider when Interviewing Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Forensic Contexts

A Cautionary Tale: Issues to Consider when Interviewing Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Forensic Contexts

Many features associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), such as emotional regulation issues or difficulties with social communication, may raise significant issues during formal interviews with individuals with an ASD. This is particularly true in forensic contexts, when individuals with an ASD may be interviewed as a witness, victim or perpetrator of an offense. Using the available literature and clinical experience, this article summarizes some key issues and possible solutions related to conducting forensic interviews with adults who have ASD. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health| 2018, Vol. 17, No. 4, 310.320

Interviewing individuals with an autism spectrum disorder in forensic settings


David Murphy, Department of Psychology, Broadmoor Hospital, Crowthorne, UK


Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) encompass the neurodevelopmental conditions including autism, atypical autism, high functioning autism, and Asperger’s syndrome. In addition to difficulties with social communication, reciprocal social interaction and within different dimensions of imagination, individuals with an ASD typically present with sensory hypersensitivities, a specific cognitive style and characteristics, emotional regulation issues, as well as other co-morbid neurodevelopmental or psychiatric conditions. All these features can raise significant issues when formally interviewing an individual with an ASD, especially within forensic contexts where individuals may be interviewed as a witness, victim or perpetrator of an offense for a range of reasons. To date, there has been limited discussion in the literature regarding how the difficulties associated with having an ASD and co-morbidities can impact on forensic interviews. Using the available literature and clinical experience this article summarizes some key issues and possible solutions related to conducting forensic interviews with adults who have ASD.


Autism spectrum disorders, forensic interviews, assessments

Summary of the Research

“Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) refer to a broad group of neurodevelopmental disorders including Asperger’s syndrome, high functioning autism, autism, and atypical autism…It is also very common for individuals with an ASD to present with other neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorders and intellectual difficulties, as well as neurological issues such as epilepsy and other sensory difficulties related to vision and hearing. For some individuals, comorbid psychiatric disorders including anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, psychosis, or a personality disorder may be present, as well as psychopathy for a small few. Indeed, some published literature reviews suggest that individuals with an ASD who commit violent offenses and who are admitted to forensic psychiatric units often display rates of psychiatric co-morbidity” (p.310).

“In some forensic cases, the implications of psychiatric co-morbidity are that it can not only complicate the process of obtaining a reliable diagnosis of an ASD, but it can potentially make understanding the reasons or motives behind an individual’s behavior difficult…While it is generally accepted that the majority of individuals with an ASD are law abiding, individual experiences vary enormously and for some they may be a witness, victim or perpetrator of an offense…there is no evidence to suggest that individuals with an ASD are more likely to offend than so called ‘neurotypical’ individuals…Although there are many reasons why an individual with an ASD may struggle within the CJS…most appear directly related to the associated interpersonal communication difficulties, as well as the thinking styles and sensory hypersensitivities that impact on every day functioning” (p.311-312).

“The aim of this article is to outline some key issues linked to formally interviewing someone with an ASD in a forensic context and offer practical guidance to the interviewer on how to address them…Individuals with an ASD can present with a range of unusual sensory hypersensitivities or hyposensitivities across several sensory areas…While most individuals with an ASD can articulate their distress in response to sensory hypersensitivities, in other circumstances, sensory sensitivity in some individuals with an ASD can result in so-called ‘meltdowns’ where in response to being overwhelmed with sensory stimulation an individual may react either aggressively, shut down, or have difficulty processing information…” (p.313-314).

“In some forensic situations such reactions to sensory overload can potentially be misinterpreted by interviewers such as the police or courts as indications of guilt or a reflection of deliberate antisocial and anti-authoritarian behavior. Avoiding direct eye contact with others has also been described by many individuals with an ASD seen by the author as a way of minimizing sensory overload…While eye contact avoidance may be obvious at the beginning of an interview, other sensory issues may not. Where possible it is therefore very helpful to establish beforehand an individual’s ‘sensory profile’ questionnaire. The information derived from these assessments may allow appropriate environmental adjustments to be made…Failing to consider an individual’s possible sensory hypersensitivities by not creating a ‘low-impact environment’ could restrict an individual’s ability to engage with the interview process and potentially result in high anxiety and distraction, with the result that an individual is less able to provide or retain information” (p.314).

“…Individuals with an ASD can present with a high range of interpersonal communication difficulties and a particular cognitive style (notably being extremely literal in the interpretation and provision of information, as well as experiencing difficulties with central cohesion…). All of these can have a significant impact on an interview and potentially result in the interviewer or observer forming an inaccurate impression of an individual’s understanding or presenting behaviors…If present, such behaviors may also give the false impression to interviewers who are unfamiliar with potential behaviors associated with having an ASD that individuals are not taking an interview seriously, are indifferent, arrogant or even callous. Such presentations may be particularly significant in forensic contexts such as police interviews or courtrooms where jurors or members of the judiciary…may form negative impressions” (p.314-315).

“While the language used and questions put to any individual during an interview can be significant, the language and questions directed at an individual with an ASD may require particular attention and preparation…While the general aim of any interview should be to adopt a clear structure and logical order…there may be a particular need to avoid questions or statements that could be potentially ambiguous in interpretation. Metaphors and sarcasm should also be avoided, as should any non-literal language and those questions that require some form of inference, insinuation, deduction, or abstractive extrapolation” (p.315-316).

Translating Research into Practice

“This article highlights the social communication and reciprocal social interaction difficulties, as well as a range of other cognitive, sensory, and emotional regulation characteristics, associated with having an ASD (most of which are not immediately obvious to an observer) that can make formal interviews potentially difficult…When psychiatric co-morbidity is present or suspected, the potential for misdiagnosis is increased, as is the complexity of assessing culpability and intent. An interviewer should therefore attempt to be familiar with the presenting characteristics associated with several conditions or seek advice from a suitably qualified colleague” (p.316-317).

“…while there are some general difficulties associated with having an ASD, every individual should also be considered unique with regard to their circumstances and specific profile of cognitive, sensory, and emotional characteristics, especially so when there may be co-morbid conditions present. While interviewing training in ASD is an important part of improving ‘outcomes’ of formal interviews and challenging stereotypes of what individuals with an ASD can and cannot do, much also remains to be understood about which assessment and therapeutic approaches best suit individuals with an ASD. For example, there may be particular subgroups of individuals with an ASD who benefit from different interviewing styles and techniques…The potential role of technological aids such as tablets and lap tops in facilitating communication within interviews also remains to be explored…” (p.317-318).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Although general good practice should be that leading questions should also be avoided during interviews…both clinical experience and some studies…suggest adults with an ASD are not especially vulnerable to suggestibility per se when tested using the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scales 2…it is…questionable as to whether the findings from these studies can be applied to actual forensic cases and especially those with co-morbid psychiatric disorders and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Of interest, but not consistent with clinical experience, is the finding from the adult studies that while individuals with an ASD were no more suggestible than individuals without an ASD, they rated themselves to be significantly more compliant…in the author’s experience with forensic cases there is rarely any particular tendency towards wishing to please the interviewer or necessarily to portray a more socially desirable image” (p.316).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Amber Lin

Amber Lin is a volunteer in Dr. Zapf’s research lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She graduated from New York University in 2013 with a B.A. (honors) and is a second year Masters student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her research interests include forensic assessment, competency to stand trial, and the refinement of instruments used to assess the psychological states of criminal defendants.

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