According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of 68 — or roughly 1.2 million — people under the age of 21 in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism. While there are no reliable figures of how many autistic people are incarcerated, a 2015 report by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 2 in 10 prisoners and 3 in 10 jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability. With more than 2.3 million people imprisoned in the U.S., it's fair to conclude that thousands of diagnosed and undiagnosed autistic people are behind bars with little to no support.
As a prison volunteer, I've seen countless inmates over the years who were clearly developmentally disabled and yet stuck in a revolving door of incarceration. One inmate in particular named Manny sticks out in my mind. He was a large man, over six feet tall with large arm muscles and knuckles that bore the scars of many past fights.
It was my first time in a prison as a volunteer and I was nervous. Manny entered the cafeteria and immediately began waving at all of the corrections officers and inmates as they passed. A few patted him on the back and I could see him stiffen for a moment each time, his smile faltering, before he saw another familiar face and the smile returned.
He noticed me and came over to say hello. He avoided eye contact, preferring to look at my shoulder. But he was curious as to who I was and eager to introduce himself. I reached out my hand but his smile faltered so I waved instead. That brought the smile back. He turned away and went to sit near the wall.
"Manny is very sweet, until he gets mad," the female officer standing nearby told me. "He goes crazy when he gets into a rage. Things just set him off. He's like a kid in many ways."
Another officer later told me that many correctional officers suspected he may be autistic, but without an official diagnosis, his violent outbursts led to more charges and stints in solitary because no one really understood how to handle him. That lack of understanding is a huge problem within the U.S. justice system today