Autism’s collision with the law

March 24, 2024

Daniel Blackburn


Update: Bankman-Fried was sentenced to 25 years in a federal prison on March 28 by Judge Lewis Kaplan.

Here’s a reality I barely recognized only several months ago. Now, it is burned into my consciousness:

“Autistic people are being overlooked and not given the support they need during initial law enforcement interactions and in the courts by attorneys and judges at the state and federal level.”

This was written by Tyler T. Whitney of the Emory University School of Medicine. But it is the shared conclusion of legions of people who have spent their professional lives studying the issue and advocating for some kind of accommodation for people on the autism spectrum who find themselves ensnared in the legal system — often with disastrous outcomes.

Late last year, my wife Maria was watching a segment on CBS’ 60 Minutes when she turned to me and asked, “Are you hearing this?”

Michael Lewis, whose book on Sam Bankman-Fried and his FTX company is a best-seller, was discussing Bankman-Fried’s behavior leading up to and during trial and his often-confusing testimony.

His foot tapping, reluctance to maintain eye contact, perceived aloofness, and long, rambling answers to questions – described by some reporters as “word salad” – were being perceived as disrespect by the judge and prosecutors. And that was being cited as justification for a draconian prison sentence of 100 or more years.

That behavior – and the misinterpretation of it – too often influences the direction of prosecution, the outcome of verdicts, and the severity of sentences.

Listening to Lewis’ description of Bankman-Fried’s actions reminded us, quite graphically, of our own neurodivergent adult son.

Maria wrote a letter to presiding Judge Lewis Kaplan, relating, “As [the author] described Sam, I saw my son and kept wondering why autism never came up in the segment, because those of us knowledgeable about it could see his behavior, his mannerisms … and his brilliance… as huge indicators of him being a highly functioning individual clearly on the spectrum. I did not follow the trial closely but did look for some kind of public acknowledgement of his condition.

“I told him that Sam sounds very much like my own – his mannerisms, thinks in numbers (my son is discovering Pi patterns at the moment), brilliant, very good at making money, same dress style, or lack thereof, obsessive, socially awkward….”

In the ensuing weeks, Maria was able to contact Bankman-Fried’s father, Joe, to ask if Sam had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Yes, was the answer, but only after his arrest. (Sam Bankman-Fried was convicted of fraud and awaits sentencing in a New York courtroom on March 28.)

Others had also contacted Joe Bankman to make the same inquiry, and he put us in touch with them.

The result is an emerging effort featuring a website seeking to increase general awareness of the disadvantages faced by people on the spectrum when encountering law enforcement. Contributors to the site include some of the world’s most informed experts on the subject, including Professor Alexander Westphal of Yale University. The site is loaded with professional opinions, research findings, factual observations and practical suggestions for law enforcement, attorneys, and others in the legal system.

It is inarguable that autistic individuals may be at their most vulnerable point when appearing in American courtrooms as criminally charged defendants.

Under this kind of stress, many such individuals often will exhibit behavior that judges and others find confusing, disrespectful, dismissive, and irritating.

But let’s be real: far too often, and to the uninformed, a claim of neurodiversity by a criminal defendant is perceived as a convenient excuse for bad behavior and is ignored or ridiculed by observers.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that today there are thousands of autistic people in prison whose sentences are unjustly severe based not only on their crimes but on their behavior before and during their trials.

It’s long past time for the legal system to adapt to provide more accommodations for those diagnosed with autism. Then, and only then, will justice be fully and truly served.

Daniel Blackburn is a co-founder of CalCoastNews.


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I do agree with this: “Autistic people are being overlooked and not given the support they need during initial law enforcement interactions…..” I have an adult child who has a diagnosis from a neuro-psychologist for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Law enforcement needs more awareness training when encountering someone on the Autism Spectrum in order to understand their predisposition to panic attacks and anxiety. I simple stop for a traffic ticket could cause them to react in a way that is perceived to be bizarre and with an insensitive and ignorant cop it could escalate into an autistic person being so misunderstood they could be arrested. Some people on this thread seem to unfairly compare Autism with Psychopathy and Downs Syndrome? Mr. Blackburn does not say anyone should use Autism as a way to avoid being prosecuted. I think his post on Autism awareness should not have been linked to Bankman-Frieds crimes.

The more dangerous side to this concern, is that anyone can claim to be on the spectrum, to excuse any wrongdoing.

Manson? Autistic.

Hitler? Autistic.

Oswald? Autistic.

Adam Hill? Autistic.

Ortiz-Legg? Austisitc.

Harmon? Autistic (well, that’s not much of a stretch…)

Does the person know right from wrong, and do they have a history of poor legal decisions. That has to be the determination of behavior, and not simply being on the very wide spectrum.


This is why it has been listed as a “spectrum”. Autism has become the catch-all for mental conditions. The “spectrum allows any and all variations and levels, ranging from totally a normal acting, talking, operating person with an odd personality “twitch”, to anyone with the most sever form of Downs Syndrome.

Like many other handicaps, Autism isn’t regularly “seen”.

Manson? Psychopath.

Hitler? Psychopath.

Oswald? Psychopath

Adam Hill? Sociopath/Psychopath

Ortiz-Legg? Sociopath.

Harmon? Sociopath.

The DSM 5 diagnosis for Psychopaths and Sociopaths is Anti Social Personality Disorder. It is extremely dangerous, disrespectful and detrimental to associate anyone and with Autism Spectrum Disorder with Anti Social Personality Disorder. Your post is an uninformed insult to the Neuro-Diverse community and those who have a DSM-5 Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I do not agree that ANYONE should get away with committing a crime but please educate yourself before you make insulting posts to those with a developmental disability.

While I agree with Mr. Blackburn that the judicial system needs better understanding of autism (as well as other psychological disorders), it’s a case of “too little, too late.” Sam Bankman-Fried managed to graduate from MIT, work for a Wall Street company, and start up a multi-billion dollar company. That’s not an easy to do. Granted, it helped that his family wasn’t poor. It doesn’t seem like his autism and ADHD were barriers to his rise in financial success, so it’s difficult to excuse or rationalize his wrongdoings because of his alleged disabilities.

Some may argue that it was his autism and ADHD that allowed him to be brilliant in mathematics and science. If so, what about all the other autistic people who managed to overcome their disorder and find success and not resort to fraud? And how will Sam Bankman-Fried’s case affect autistic/ADHD children striving for place in the world.


Sam Bankman-Fried is a greedy thief… if he is also autistic then he is an autistic greedy thief….

Virtue signaling at its finest. Where is the compassion and concern for fairness for all of the people who had their financial lives blown apart? I bet some of them could also be on the autistic spectrum. Is their outcome unfair?

Mr. Blackburn…if you are a victim of his crimes, then maybe your opinion should have been conveyed to the courts. 100years maybe is unfair, but if you lost millions, then maybe 100 years is unfair, but in the other direction?

Too bad people don’t write opinion pieces emphasizing the victims of those who commit crimes, because that would be true compassion.

I do agree that law enforcement is an issue for some of these autistic people, so keep them outside the arena where law enforcement may be difficult, like driving a vehicle. Additionally I do understand that there are ADA requirements but even with that there are limits where they may be dangerous to others. There must be deferent levels of autism if categorizing people who like to wear the same clothes, do the same work, compulsively pay their bills and stay busy. That said, the social boredom as seen by others is an issue but there are blessings and life is good.

Dan, thanks for raising this. I, too, have family members who struggle due to various issues of neurodiversity. Neuro-diversity doesn’t excuse bad behavior any more than Adam Hill’s claim of depression excused his bad behavior, but it should be recognized and considered so that differences in behavioral mannerisms and understanding can be taken into account rather than unfairly judged.

Dan, the justification for SBF receiving a 100 year prison sentence is because he, Caroline, and the rest of the filthy dirtbags at FTX lied to and cheated their clients and investors to the tune of 10’s of billions of dollars, not caring that they would destroy lives, livelihoods, and marriages whilst doing so. They ran the biggest ponzi scheme in history and were arrogant beyond means. 100 years is NOT draconian, it is justified. And it’s also well documented that SBF has a serious adderall addiction, which likely contributes significantly to his constant tapping and bouncing. Hearing the stories about what happens to him and his cronies in prison will be sweet words to my (and many other people’s) ears.

You seem to have missed the point of the commentary.

No actually I didn’t. Dan just used a poor example to illustrate his point. SBF and Co deserves life. They are arrogant and apathetic. Sam’s behavior in court is not going to have an effect on his sentence, his actions while the CEO of FTX will.

To be very frank, your uninformed comments reflect the reason Blackburn’s advocacy is so necessary.

nice general response to both of my comments.