Just as people with autism face challenges at school, work, and social environments, they’re also likely to face prison difficulties. This can make life in prison extra challenging. 

Difficulties Faced by People with Autism While in Prison 

In 2021, a study of male prisoners in the US found that about 4.4% had autism (double the regular population). This doesn’t account for prisoners who haven’t been diagnosed. 

While autism itself isn’t associated with crime, factors like unemployment and homelessness increase the risk that someone will end up behind bars. 

Stay in Touch With Autistic Friends and Family in Prison (e.g., in Tennessee)

If you have a loved one with autism who’s incarcerated, you may be keen to help them with the challenges they face.

One of the best things you can do is simply to stay in touch. Send letters and photos, and if you can afford it, send money to your friend’s prison account so they can make phone calls.

If you don’t have contact details for your friend, you can look them up in a database for their prisons, such as Sevier County Jail – or any other prison in Tennessee or any state.

Challenge 1: Struggles with Social Cues and Unwritten Rules

One considerable difficulty faced by autistic prisoners is the number of unwritten rules in prison. Some people will have successfully learned and adapted to social cues and unwritten rules in regular society. However, learning a whole new set of rules to cope with the prison environment isn’t easy.

Autistic prisoners may not understand certain rules and expectations, like staying out of other people’s business and not telling guards about misbehavior. This can lead to retaliation and violence from other prisoners.

There may well also be unwritten rules between guards and prisoners. For instance, some guards may be more lenient about dress code rules like tucking in shirts. Again, it can be difficult for autistic prisoners to pick up on this.

Challenge 2: Sensitivity to Light and Noise

Many people with autism are sensitive to light, noise, or smells, which can be a particular problem in prison. Perhaps lights are on late into the night, making it harder for them to get a good night’s sleep, or there’s constant noise from other cells. Maybe particular odors are unpleasant or overwhelming. 

This can be really challenging. Many autistic prisoners find their ways to cope, such as covering their head with a sheet or towel to block out light while they’re sleeping. 

If you’re able to send money to your autistic friend or family member, they may be able to use this to buy things from the commissary (prison shop) that help, such as earplugs.

Challenge 3: Misdiagnosis and Lack of Knowledge About Autism

Many prisons do not screen specifically for autism. This can make it very difficult for prisoners to be diagnosed if they don’t already have autism.

Even when a prisoner is known to be autistic, correctional officers and staff may have little knowledge about autism. This means that they may interpret an autistic prisoner’s actions as insubordination when the person is behaving in a particular way due to distress or anxiety.

This can also create difficulties with parole board hearings. Autistic prisoners who have a flat demeanor or who don’t make eye contact may be seen as lacking remorse. 

Various charities are working on improving things for autistic people in prison, such as the National Autistic Society in the UK. Many families of people with autism have also advocated on their behalf to improve their conditions.

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