Detecting dodgy behaviour: The role of autism, autistic traits and theory of mind

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We examined whether theory of mind difficulties often considered to characterise autistic individuals impair their ability to detect the presence of dodgy or suspicious behaviour in interactions, thereby rendering them especially vulnerable to becoming involved in criminal activity or being victimised. Using a signal detection theory approach, we compared autistic (N = 72; Verbal Comprehension Index = 88–122, M = 106.6) and non-autistic (N = 70; Verbal Comprehension Index = 86–120, M = 104.4) adults’ ability to detect dodgy or suspicious behaviour across a broad array of scenarios (N = 136). Although theory of mind performance was poorer for the autistic group, frequentist and Bayesian analyses indicated there were no group differences in either the standard measures of discrimination performance obtainable using a signal detection theory approach or in terms of a bias towards reporting dodgy behaviour. Furthermore, there was no indication of a relationship between dodginess detection and autistic traits. However, regardless of group membership, theory of mind difficulties were associated with poorer discrimination of dodgy behaviour, highlighting an individual difference variable that may increase the vulnerability of both autistic and non-autistic individuals to involvement in some form of criminal activity or to becoming a victim of crime. 

Lay abstract: Difficulties in reading others’ minds make it difficult to anticipate their future behaviour. It has often been argued that such difficulties contribute to autistic individuals becoming enmeshed in criminal activity. However, supportive scientific evidence is virtually non-existent. We compared the ability of groups of autistic and non-autistic adults of similar intellectual ability to detect dodgy or suspicious behaviour across a wide range of scenarios. Although the autistic group performed more poorly than the non-autistic group on an established measure of mindreading, there were no group differences in the ability to detect dodginess. Nor did we find any evidence that detecting dodgy behaviour was associated with the degree of autistic traits reported by individual participants. However, when we combined the two groups, difficulty reading the minds of others was indeed associated with poorer detection of dodginess, thus highlighting a characteristic of individuals that may well increase the likelihood of becoming involved in crime or exploited for autistic and non-autistic individuals alike.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1026-1035
Number of pages10
Issue number4
Early online date11 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - May 2023


  • Autism
  • autistic traits
  • criminality
  • signal detection theory
  • theory of mind


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