Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 48, Issue 9, pp 3010–3020 | Cite as

Higher Autistic Traits Among Criminals, But No Link to Psychopathy: Findings from a High-Security Prison in Portugal

  • Diana LoureiroEmail author
  • Ana Machado
  • Tânia Silva
  • Tânia Veigas
  • Carlos Ramalheira
  • Joaquim Cerejeira
Original Paper


The relationship between autism, criminality and psychopathy has gained increased attention in recent years, although research has focused on autism spectrum disorders, and not autistic traits. We measured autistic traits (with the Autism Spectrum Quotient) in a sample of 101 inmates from a high-security prison and compared them to a control group, using a logistic regression model that included age, education, psychopathology, psychopathy and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder as covariates. Prisoners had more autistic traits (OR 1.13, p = 0.002) due to higher scores in the communication (OR 1.23) and imagination (OR 1.30) domains. No correlations were found between autistic and psychopathic traits. Our study points to the presence of autistic traits as being independent risk factors for imprisonment, although not associated with psychopathy.


Autism Adult Criminality Prison Psychopathy 



The author’s would like to acknowledge the assistance from the staff of the Coimbra Penitentiary.

Author Contributions

DL participated in the conception, design and coordination of the study, wrote the manuscript and collected data. AM, TS and TV all collected data and contributed to the manuscript. AM also participated in the study design. CR participated in the design of the study and conducted the statistical analysis. JC conceived and coordinated the study and reviewed the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

Diana Loureiro declares that she has no conflict of interest. Ana Machado declares that she has no conflict of interest. Tânia Silva declares that she has no conflict of interest. Tânia Veigas declares that she has no conflict of interest. Carlos Ramalheira declares that he has no conflict of interest. Joaquim Cerejeira declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures (questionnaire) performed in this study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


  1. Allely, C. S., Minnis, H., Thompson, L., Wilson, P., & Gillberg, C. (2014). Neurodevelopmental and psychosocial risk factors in serial killers and mass murders. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19, 288–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allen, D., Evans, C., Hider, A., Hawkins, S., Peckett, H., & Morgan, H. (2008). Offending behaviour in adults with Asperger syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 748–758.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Anckarsater, H. S. (2005). Clinical neuropsychiatric symptoms in perpetrators of severe crimes against persons. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 59, 246–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ashworth, S. (2016). Autism is underdiagnosed in prisoners. BMJ, 353, i3028.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): Evidence from asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Bates, A. (2016). The prevalence of autistic spectrum conditions in a community offender sample. Advances in Autism, 2(4), 191–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blair, R. J. (2005). Responding to the emotions of others: Dissociating forms of empathy through the study of typical and psychiatric populations. Consciousness and Cognition, 14(4), 698–718.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Canavarro, M. C. (1999). Inventário de Sintomas Psicopatológicos: BSI. In M. R. Simões, M. Gonçalves & L. S. Almeida (Eds.), Testes e provas psicológicas em Portugal (Vol. II, pp. 87–109). Braga: SHO/APPORT.Google Scholar
  10. Castro, S. L., & Lima, C. F. (2014). Age and musical expertise influence emotion recognition in music. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 32, 125–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cheely, C. A., Carpenter, L. A., Letourneau, E. J., Nicholas, J. S., Charles, J., & King, L. B. (2012). The prevalence of youth with autism spectrum disorders in the criminal justice system. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 1856–1862.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Derogatis, L. R., & Melisaratos, N. (1983). The brief symptom inventory: An introductory report. Psychological Medicine, 13(3), 595–605.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Dores, A. P., Pontes, N., & Loureiro, R. (2013). Prison conditions in Portugal. Roma: Antigoni Edizione.Google Scholar
  14. Fazio, R. L., Pietz, C. A., & Denney, R. L. (2012). An estimate of the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in an incarcerated population. Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology, 4, 69–80.Google Scholar
  15. Fitzgerald, M. (2001). Autistic psychopathy. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(8), 870.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Hare, R. D. (2003). The psychopathy checklist-revised. Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems.Google Scholar
  17. Heeramun, R., Magnusson, C., Gumpert, C. H., Granath, S., Lundberg, M., Dalman, C., et al. (2017). Autism and convictions for violent crimes: Population-based cohort study in Sweden. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 56(6), 491–497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Helverschou, S. B., Rasmussen, K., Steindal, K., Søndanaa, E., & Nøttestad, J. A. (2015). Offending profiles of individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A study of all individuals with autism spectrum disorder examined by the forensic psychiatry service in Norway between 2000 and 2010. Autism, 19(7), 850–858.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Hippler, K., Viding, E., Klicpera, C., & Happé, F. (2010). Brief report: No increase in criminal convictions in Hans Asperger’s original cohort. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 774–780.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Im, D. S. (2016). Template to perpetrate: An update on violence in autism spectrum disorder. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 24, 14–35.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  21. Jones, A. P., Happé, F. G., Gilbert, F., Burnett, S., & Viding, E. (2010). Feeling, caring, knowing: Different types of empathy deficit in boys with psychopathic tendencies and autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(11), 188–1197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jones, A. P., Larsson, H., Ronald, A., Rijsdijk, F., Busfield, P., Mcmillan, A., et al. (2009). Phenotypic and aetiological associations between psychopathic tendencies, autistic traits and emotion attribution. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(11), 1198–1212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kessler, R. C., Adler, L., Ames, M., Demler, O., Faraone, S., Hiripi, E., et al. (2005). The World Health Organization adult ADHD self-report scale (ASRS). Psychological Medicine, 35(2), 245–256.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. King, C., & Murphy, G. H. (2014). A systematic review of people with autism spectrum disorder and the criminal justice system. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(11), 2717–2733.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Klapwijk, E. T., Aghajani, M., Colins, O. F., Marijnissen, G. M., Popma, A., van Lang, N. D., et al. (2016). Different brain responses during empathy in autism spectrum disorders versus conduct disorder and callous-unemotional traits. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(6), 737– 747.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Lai, M., Lombardo, M. V., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2013). Autism. The Lancet, 383(9920), 896–910.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lerner, M. D., Haque, O. S., Northruo, E. C., Lawer, L., & Bursztajn, H. J. (2012). Emerging perspectives on adolescents and young adults with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders, violence, and criminal law. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 40, 177–190.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Lilienfeld, S. O., Patrick, C. J., Benning, S. D., Berg, J., Sellbom, M., & Edens, J. F. (2012). The role of fearless dominance in psychopathy: Confusions, controversies and clarifications. Personal Disord, 3(3), 327–340.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Louzolo, A., Gustavsson, P., Tigerström, L., Ingvar, M., Olsson, A., & Petrovic, P. (2017). Delusion-proneness displays comorbidity with traits of autistic-spectrum disorders and ADHD. PLoS ONE, 12(5), e0177820.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  30. Lundstrom, S., Forsman, M., Larsson, H., Kerekes, N., Serlachius, E., Langstrom, N., et al. (2014). Childhood neurodevelopmental disorders and violent criminality: A sibling control study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(11), 2707–2716.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. McDonald, M. L., & Messinger, D. S. (2011). The development of empathy: How, when and why. In J. A. Lombo & J. J. Sanguineti (Eds.), Free will, emotions and moral actions: Philosophy and neuroscience in dialogue. Florida: IF-Press.Google Scholar
  32. Mouridsen, S. E. (2012). Current status of research on autism spectrum disorders and offending. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 79–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Muñoz-Laboy, M., Worthington, N., Perry, A., Guilamo-Ramos, V., Cabassa, L., Leej, J., & Sverson, N. (2014). Socio-environmental risks for untreated depression among formerly incarcerated Latino men. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 16(6), 1183–1192.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Newman, S. S., & Ghaziuddin, M. (2008). Violent crime in Asperger syndrome: The role of psychiatric comorbidity. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1848–1852.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. O’Nions, E., Tick, B., Rijsdijk, F., Happé, F., Plomin, R., Ronald, A., et al. (2015). Examining the genetic and environmental associations between autistic social and communication deficits and psychopathic callous-unemotional traits. PLoS ONE, 10(9), e0.134331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Patrick, C. J. (2010). Operationalizing the triarchic conceptualization of psychopathy: Preliminary description of brief scales for assessment of boldness, meanness, and dishinibition. Tallahassee: Florida State University. Retrieved September 2, 2016, from
  37. Patrick, C. J., Fowles, D. C., & Kruger, R. F. (2009). Triarchic conceptualization of psychopathy: Developmental origins of dishinibition, boldness and meanness. Development and Psychopathology, 21(03), 913–938.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Pestana, J. A. M. (2013). Relação entre rede social, inteligência geral, inteligência social e hormonas em humanos. Retrieved February 13, 2017, from
  39. Pisula, E., Kawa, R., Szostakiewic, Ł, Łucka, I., Kawa, M., & Rynkiewicz, A. (2013). Autistic traits in male and female students and individuals with high functioning autism spectrum disorders measured by the Polish version of the autism spectrum quotient. PLoS ONE, 8, e75236.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  40. Portney, L. G., & Watkins, M. P. (2009). Foundations of clinical research: Applications to practice (3rd ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  41. Rava, J., Shattuck, P., Rast, J., & Roux, A. (2017). The Prevalence and correlates of involvment in the criminal justice system among youth on the autism spectrum. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 340–346.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Robinson, L., Spencer, M. D., Thomson, L. D. G., Stanfield, A. C., Owens, D. G. C., Hall, J., et al. (2012). Evaluation of a screening instrument for autism spectrum disorders in prisoners. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e36078.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  43. Rogers, J., Viding, E., Blair, R. J., & Frith, U. (2006). Autism spectrum disorder and psychopathy: Shared cognitive underpinnings or double hit? Psychological Medicine, 36, 1789–1798.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Ruta, L., Mazzone, D., Mazzone, L., Wheelwright, S., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2012). The autism-spectrum quotient—Italian version: A cross-cultural confirmation of the broader autism phenotype. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(4), 625–633.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Sasson, N. J., Lam, K. S., Parlier, M., Daniels, J. L., & Piven, J. (2013). Autism and the broad autism phenotype: Familial patterns and intergenerational transmission. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 5, 11.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  46. Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Aharon-Peretz, J., & Perry, D. (2009). Two systems for empathy: A double dissociation between emotional and cognitive empathy in inferior frontal gyrus versus ventromedial prefrontal lesions. Brain, 132(3), 617–627.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Simon, V., Czobor, P., Bálint, S., Mészáros, A., & Bitter, I. (2009). Prevalence and correlates of adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: Meta-analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 194(3), 204–211.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Soderstrom, H., Nilsson, T., Sjodin, A. K., Carlstedt, A., & Forsman, A. (2005). The childhood-onset neuropsychiatric background to adulthood psychopathic traits and personality disorders. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 46, 111–116.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Stanley, J. H., Wygant, D. B., & Sellbom, M. (2013). Elaborating on the construct validity of the triarchic psychopathy measure in a criminal offender sample. Journal of Personality Assessment, 95(4), 343–350.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Vieira, J. B., Almeida, P. R., Ferreira-Santos, F., Moreria, P. S., Barbosa, F., & Marques-Teixeira, J. (2014). The triarchic psychopathy measure (TriPM): Translation and adaptation to European Portuguese (LabReport No. 6). Porto: Laboratory of Neuropsychophysiology (University of Porto). Retrieved August 15, 2016, from
  51. Wakabayashi, A., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., & Tojo, Y. (2006). The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ) in Japan: A cross-cultural comparison. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 263–270.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Wallace, G. L., Shaw, P., Lee, N. R., Clasen, L. S., Raznahan, A., Lenroot, R. K., et al. (2012). Distinct cortical correlates of autistic versus antisocial traits in a longitudinal sample of typically developing youth. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(14), 4856–4860.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Westphal, A. (2017). Public perception, autism, and the importance of violence subtypes. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 56(6), 462–463.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Woodbury-Smith, M., & Dein, K. (2014). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and unlawful behavior: Where do we go from here? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 2734–2741.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Woodbury-Smith, M. R., Clare, I. C. H., Holland, A. J., & Kearns, A. (2006). High functioning autistic spectrum disorders, offending and other law breaking: Findings from a community sample. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 17(1), 108–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Young, S., Moss, D., Sedgwick, O., Fridman, M., & Hodgkins, P. (2015). A meta-analysis of the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in incarcerated populations. Psychological Medicine, 45, 247–258.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Diana Loureiro
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Ana Machado
    • 1
    • 2
  • Tânia Silva
    • 1
    • 2
  • Tânia Veigas
    • 2
  • Carlos Ramalheira
    • 1
    • 2
  • Joaquim Cerejeira
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Centro Hospitalar e Universitário de CoimbraCoimbraPortugal
  2. 2.Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de CoimbraCoimbraPortugal

Personalised recommendations