Self-harm and Mental Health Characteristics of Prisoners with elevated rates of autistic traits

Eddie Chaplin*, Jane McCarthy, Clare S. Allely, Andrew Forrester, Lisa Underwood, Hannah Hayward, Jess Sabet, Susan Young, Richard Mills, Philip Asherson, Declan Murphy

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Prevalence studies among prisoners have found rates of 1–4% for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or autistic traits. However, little is known about those prisoners with high levels of autistic traits. Aim: This aim of this study was to compare the mental health characteristics of prisoners with autistic traits with neurotypical prisoners not screening positive for neurodevelopmental disorders. Method: The study recruited 240 male prisoners from a London prison and screened for autism spectrum disorder using the Autism Quotient (AQ) 20 and 10, and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). The Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview was used to assess for depression, anxiety, self-harm behavior and suicide. Results: Screening using the AQ identified 46 prisoners with significant autistic traits, with 12 meeting the diagnostic threshold for ASD using the ADOS. Those screening positive with autistic traits were significantly more likely to have thought about self-harm and suicide in the past month than neurotypical prisoners and have a comorbid mental disorder. They were also significantly more likely to report having attempted suicide during their lifetime compared to neurotypical peers at a rate of 64.9 % compared to 11.6 % for the neurotypical prisoners. Conclusion: Prisoners with elevated levels of autistic traits were more likely to report self-harm, suicidal thoughts and were more vulnerable to a range of mental disorders than neurotypical prisoners. There is a need for more evidence on the experience of autistic prisoners to inform how pathways should work to improve health outcomes through increased awareness and access to screening and subsequent diagnosis which currently prisons are currently not set up for.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103987
JournalResearch in Developmental Disabilities
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021


  • Autistic spectrum disorder
  • Autistic traits
  • Mental illness
  • Prisoners
  • Screening
  • Self-harm and suicidality


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