A hermeneutic phenomenological examination of the lived experience of incarceration for those with autism

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The experiences of incarceration for those with autism are largely unknown. As a result there is paucity in the research literature to inform appropriate service provision for incarcerated persons with autism. This study aimed to examine and interpret the lived experience of adults with autism who were incarcerated in the New South Wales correctional system, Australia. A hermeneutic phenomenological approach, underpinned by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer, was utilised in this research. Participants were interviewed with sensitivity to the information processing style of those with autism using modified techniques for using a hermeneutic phenomenological approach with study participants who have autism. Interviews were audio-recorded and recordings transcribed to create a text for interpretative analysis. The lived experience of incarceration for the participants of this study was about being in an unpredictable environment characterised by everchanging routines, incomprehensible rules and unpredictable complex social situations. Experiencing anxiety was a prominent theme and stemmed from being deprived of their ability to create predictability in their environment, and the confusion and distress experienced by being forced to comply with actions that were in conflict with their logic. The environment further allowed participants to isolate themselves and avoid social interactions as a form of maladaptive coping with the social-related demands of incarceration. From dialoguing the findings with existing literature it was clear that aspects of study participants’ experience of incarceration were comparable to what would be experienced by incarcerated persons who do not have autism. However much of the anxiety experienced by participants in the current study related directly to the incompatibleness of their autism-related impairments and the prison environment and would therefore be unique to prisoners who have autism or autism-like traits. Recommendations for improvements in service provision for incarcerated persons with autism are made and areas for future research suggested.
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