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It remains unclear how many autistic people are in prison as the condition often goes undiagnosed or unrecognised and in some scenarios is even interpreted by prison personnel simply as bad behaviour. Changes, however, are being made, albeit at a slower pace than campaigners would like, though the government’s strategy on autism does now extend to prisoners.

Autism often in prisoners


The numbers of autistic people in prison are more than double the general population - 1%, compared to 2.3% of the prison population – and experts remain concerned that autism in prison falls in the gap between learning disabilities and mental illness.

“Autism can also go unnoticed due to a lack of awareness, resources and knowledge about available support,” said Sarah Ashworth from Derbyshire Autism Services, who authored a report published in the British Medical Journal that indicated that autism is underdiagnosed in prisoners and called for more investment for assessment in forensic settings.

She believes the government strategy in autism from the perspective of prisoners needs to lead to increased awareness, through prisons offering better training to personnel and working more closely with external organisations.

Feltham leads the way in autism practice


An example of good practice has seen the National Autistic Society (NAS) working with HMP Young Offenders Institute Feltham in London in recent years to improve autism practice and now more prisons across England and Wales are signing up to the initiative.

At Feltham, prison staff work with staff from Barnet, Enfield and Haringey mental health NHS trust to establish a diagnostic service.

In addition, Network Autism, a website where autism professionals connect, has produced a guide for prison officers covering aspects of autism.

Challenging prison environment for autistic people


Prison can be at times a reassuring environment for autistic people, with daily regimes and clear rules – which people with autism tend to follow diligently - but can prove particularly difficult and destabilising when sudden and unexpected changes in routine occur.

Autistic prisoners are more likely to risk isolation by refusing to mix with others and adjudications where a judge rules on a disciplinary charge, can be an ordeal for them. They can also find it difficult to retain support when released, or when they attain the age of 18.

To improve this situation, the NAS is working with police and probation services to ensure that autistic prisoners understand the terms of their release so they do not end up back in prison for breaching them.
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