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Social cognition in offenders with autism: A preliminary exploration


In what ways are the criminogenic needs of this population the same/different? ... anxiety management as primary criminogenic need (Bolton, 2006; Wood, unpublished) ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Social cognition in offenders with autism: A preliminary exploration

Social cognition in offenders with autism A
preliminary exploration
  • Carol Guinan Assistant Psychologist
  • Dr Anne Sheeran Consultant Clinical Forensic
  • Psychologist
  • Kent Forensic Psychiatry Service

  • Methodology
  • Theoretical background
  • Clinical details
  • Analysis
  • Implications ?

  • Single case analysis of offenders own account
  • Semi-structured interview
  • Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)
    (see e.g. Smith and Osborn, 2003)
  • Insiders perspective using idiographic approach
  • Unit of analysis - individuals own account
  • Guided by SIP model to examine social cognitive
    deficits e.g. Theory of Mind (ToM)

Social cognition offending behaviour
  • Social cognition the process of making sense out
    of all aspects of the social world (Kunda, 1999)
  • Skilful processing of social cues the basis of
    competent social functioning (Nas et al, 2005)
  • Reliable predictor of offending behaviour
    (Farrington, 2001 Ross Fabiano, 1985)

ASD and Offending
  • Majority of people with Asperger's Syndrome are
    scrupulously law abiding (Howlin,
    2004Tantam,2000Wing, 1997)
  • Minority who are in the forensic system a
    highly unique population with specialised needs
    (Murphy, 2003) Certain commonalities may be
    found in those with the disorder charged with
    criminal acts (Murrie et al, 2002)
  • Focus neurocognitive abnormalities, yet
    remarkable heterogeneity in presentation ?

Some characteristics of the hfASD offender
  • A sense of self absorption disregard for others
    (Wing, 1997)
  • Purely intellectual interest chilling
    detachment from the effects of their crimes on
    victims (Wing, 1997)
  • Autistic egocentricism vs. Neurotypical
    egocentricism (Frith, 2004)
  • Intention to harm others is rare (Howlin, 2004)
  • Involved in more unusual or bizarre offences

What types of crime?
  • Small scale (N45) study by Woodbury-Smith et al.
  • Compared with equivalent control group (n20),
    hfASD offenders (n25) were involved with less
    acquisitive crime
  • 5 times less likely to have convictions for drug
    related crime
  • More likely to have convictions for violent
    behaviour and criminal damage
  • Participants accounts indicated desire for
    revenge in response to perceived victimisation

Questions to bear in mind
  • How do some with this condition adapt more
    successfully than others?
  • Is adequate social information processing a
    protective factor against offending?
  • In what ways are the criminogenic needs of this
    population the same/different?
  • How can treatment providers intervene at this

Proposed motives
  • Wish to have power in inter-personal situations ?
    seemingly malicious behaviour (Tantam, 1999)
  • Displaced resentment ? unprovoked assaults
  • Exploitation victimisation by more dominant
    peers left to carry the can
  • Severe social ignorance ? inappropriate social
    behaviour (Frith,1991)

  • Murrie et al (2002) Analysis of six case
  • histories from forensic settings.
  • Commonalities across cases included
  • Deficient empathy
  • Interpersonal Naivety
  • Sexual Frustration
  • Immediate confession
  • Links to preoccupations

  • Hostility arising from negative social
    experiences e.g. rejection bullying
  • Lacking regulating effects of empathy
  • Co-morbid psychopathology in some e.g.
    delusional/paranoid ideation
  • Lacking ability to stand in potential victims
    shoes i.e. Theory of Mind
  • ? Consequential thought

A heterogeneous condition
  • Triad of impairments Limitations in social
    interaction, communication and imagination
  • Core clinical characteristics Deficits in
    empathy, inappropriate social interaction,
    limited capacity to form friendships and poor
    understanding of non verbal communication (Wing,
  • Combination intensity of characteristics
    availability of support, influence nature of
    behavioural outcomes

An alien from outer space
  • First hand accounts from successful individuals
    highlight the anxieties stresses experienced
    when attempting to tune into social and
    affective information e.g. gestures, facial
    expression and tone of voice (Williams, 2004)
  • Temple Grandin describes her thinking as from
    the vantage point of an observer
  • Jim Sinclair like an alien from outer space

Rethinking criminogenic needs
  • Social anxiety and distress is a direct
    consequence of the core syndrome itselfand the
    development of conduct disorders is a significant
    personal reaction to those stresses (Tantam,2000
  • E.g. Perceived victimisation ? long term
    rumination suppression ? displaced aggression
    / unprovoked attacks

Social cognition a common deficit
  • Hallmark deficit of ASD Detachment from the
    social world
  • Popular treatments e.g. RR focus on teaching
    these skills in social cognition in neurotypical
  • Social cognitive deficits seen as arising from
    lack of learning opportunity rather than
    intelligence/organic impairment

  • Neurocognitive impairments are considered to
    underlie the social cognitive deficits in ASD
  • Not equipped with normal preferences for social
    stimuli (Hill Frith, 2003)
  • Failure to attend to encode salient social cues
    e.g. others facial expressions (Klin et al.,
  • Misinterpretation of whole social situation
    ? inappropriate behaviour
  • Can style of processing social information
    mediate adaptability ??

Social Information Processing (SIP)
  • We are cognitive misers (Gannon et al, 2005).
  • Schemas guide us in predicting, explaining and
    understanding our social world (Mann Beech,
  • Schemas cognitive shortcuts that automatically
    bias our attention to information that fits with
    what we know and selectively filters out
    information that doesnt make sense
  • Can lead to biased attribution behaviour

SIP (cont.)
  • Rely on information in long-term memory
  • Expectancies processes of judgement, rather
    than intelligence, influence propensity to offend
    (Blackburn, 2003)
  • Theories are generated and tested throughout
    childhood, and pervade unless disproved no
    longer explain social behaviour (Drake et al,
  • Individuals adopt socially in/appropriate
    scripts, resulting in a pattern of pro- or
    anti-social behaviour (Dodge Crick, 1990).

SIP Aggressive Behaviour
  • Aggressive boys encode less relevant information
    (Matthys et al., 1999)
  • Generate more aggressive responses judge these
    responses less negatively than non-aggressive
    boys (Matthys et al., 1999)
  • Attribute more hostile intentions experience
    less guilt (Orobio de Castro et al.,2003)

SIP Aggression
  • Motivated by revenge, getting even and the
    pursuit of dominance over others rather than
    affiliation with others (Orobio de Castro et
  • This link not yet established in the adult
    offending literature
  • Longitudinal research indicates this pervades
    into adulthood (e.g Farrington, 1998)

SIP Empathy
  • callous with low empathy. They are relatively
    poor at role taking and perspective taking and
    may misinterpret other peoples intentions
    cognitive element . This lack of awareness or
    sensitivity to others thoughts and feelings
    affective element impairs their abilityto
    appreciate the effects of their behaviour on
    other people. this refers to neurotypical
  • Farrington (1998, p.257)

Theory of Mind
  • Difficulty processing complex emotion (Hill et
    el, 2004)
  • Difficulty experiencing empathy (Gillberg, 1992)
  • Preference for external events rather than inner
    experiences compared to neurotypicals
    (Gillberg, 1992)
  • Poor ToM linked with delusion formation
  • Development of coping abilities in some a
    mediating effect of SIP style on ToM development

ToM delusion formation
  • Identified in people with Aspergers Syndrome
    (Clarke et al., 1999 Tantam, 1991)
  • Link between anxiety and self consciousness with
    delusions (Abell Hare, 2005).
  • Private self consciousness - a reliable predictor
    Blackshaw et al., 2001)
  • Heightened self-awareness to exclusion of others
    feelings, due to difficulty and stresses
    experienced reading others minds ? paranoia
    (Frith, 2004)

Clinical Details
  • Male, single, early 40s
  • One previous minor conviction (fined)
  • Graduate, with previously successful career in IT
    in UK/Europe
  • High status hobby
  • Twin brother ? ASD two other siblings
  • Convicted for offences of harassment custodial
    sentence imposed
  • Transferred suicidal behaviour in prison.
    Described this as exit strategy (from his
    predicament). Serious suicide attempt in
  • Diagnosed with ASD following admission. Also has
    diagnosis of delusional disorder (related
    directly to offences)
  • Current treatment little or no change in
    presentation has received both pharmacological
    and psychological interventions

  • Self as isolationist
  • Persecuted and powerless
  • Consistent with existing findings linked with
  • ToM impairments e.g.
  • Poor empathy
  • Difficulty taking others perspectives
  • Egocentricism
  • Also a delusional aspect

Theme 1 Self as isolationist
  • I prefer not to have the interaction its too
    much like hard work.
  • relationships are too much, too much
    troublewouldnt want a relationship you have
    to put yourself out and make a fool out of

His view
  • Difficulties with dynamic social interaction
  • Effortful a likely source of anxiety
  • Elective
  • Great inhibitions about putting myself forward
  • Yet maintains he is confident in most

Functionality of isolation
  • Protective function minimise opportunities to
    fail expose personal vulnerabilities
  • Incongruence between self actual and self ideal
    representations ? his only option is external
    attribution i.e. blame others
  • Delusion formation a maladaptive strategy to
    regulate self esteem (Bentall Kindermann, 1998)

Implications of isolation
  • Minimising opportunities to learn pro-social
  • Negative core beliefs are maintained, cannot
    disprove them
  • No expression of desire to learn coping skills
  • However, isolation not absolute. Sought a social
    outlet, i.e. his victim

Profound social ignorance
  • Keeping in contact with each other 6 monthly
  • Perspective taking problems
  • It came round to the six months where I tried to
    contact her She just blanked meAt the time I
    was confused because I didnt know what was
  • going onso I absolutely pursued her to find
    out why

Friendship as harassment
  • Absolute pursuit perceived as harassment by ex
  • He was unable to accept this view (letter)
  • Gutted upset at loss of primary social
  • Sudden realisation of social cognitive deficits?
  • Denial of these deficits
  • Supposed to guess ? anger

His view
  • I was very annoyed the way she handled it. It
    wasnt so much she
  • dumped usit was the way she done itshe wasnt
    going to say anything
  • to us and I was supposed to guess. That made me
    really angryI didnt
  • have a clue what was going on...

  • Able to sustain friendship on his own terms
  • Crucial dynamic element non existent
  • Demonstrates his perspective taking problems
  • ? imaginative ability to read between the lines
  • Satisfactory only when able to predict the course
    outcome of relationship
  • How can this be rationalised ? external
    attribution easier than admitting to own
    difficulties, while maintaining his self concept

Theme 2Persecuted Powerless
  • I just wanted the attacks on me to stop, after I
    had been turned down by the police, they told me
    it was such a trivial matter not to bother themI
    resorted to doing something to them.

His reality
  • He is a victim of harassment via regime of
    nuisance phone calls and razor blades
  • Not taken seriously by police or BT
  • Revocation of rights to high status hobby ?
    resentment sadness
  • Last resort threaten arson against regulating
  • Retaliation as self defence therefore justified
  • Core belief Do unto others as they do unto you
  • Self as victim and protagonist

  • Lifelong social exclusion, rejection, bullying ?
    attends to schema congruent information
  • Existing core beliefs are based on tried and
    tested theories bias his judgement formation
  • Focus attention on information to confirm
    negative beliefs ? paranoid/persecutory type
    delusions (Wells Matthews,1994)

  • Tangible retributive philosophy
  • Vengeful desire to cause physical injury, rather
    than emotional distress to his victims
  • Autistic egocentrism (Frith, 2004) or autistic
    malice (Asperger, 1944) ?
  • Intention here to cause physical injury
  • Do unto others rather than more explicit
    emotional distress motivation

Limitations of this study
  • Integrity of data is reliant on the information
    provided by interviewee
  • Interviewing skills of researcher
  • Accuracy? / Motives?
  • Findings not generalisable
  • However, case study design is ideal to examine
    subjective experiences and social cognitions
    which appear to be so variable

Treatment implications?
  • Co-morbidity of anxiety and related
    psychopathologies evident in offenders with
    Aspergers Syndrome (Tantam, 2000)
  • Emphasis on improving emotional awareness,
    emotion regulation and anxiety management as
    primary criminogenic need (Bolton, 2006 Wood,
  • Traditional CBT treatments for offenders may not
    be appropriate

Improving intervention
  • Multi-modal rather than a one-size-fits-all
  • Heterogeneity must incorporate individuals
    experiences, coping skills emotional resources
  • Potential for modified CBT strategies,
    incorporating emotion awareness and regulation
    strategies (Hare, 1997)
  • Adapt current ASD interventions - e.g. Social
    Stories and 5 point scale frameworks for
    offender population with ASD?
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