Joseph Krauter is an autistic writer and tech worker who was diagnosed as an adult, while serving time at San Quentin Prison in California. We talked with Joseph about how his life could have been different with earlier diagnosis and supports, the difficulty of receiving an autism diagnosis while incarcerated, and how his life has changed since both his autism diagnosis and his re-integration into society.

Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism (TPGA) Just tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from? How you came about being diagnosed.

Joseph: Well, my name is Joseph Krauter. I am 41 years old and I’m originally from Bakersfield, California, but transplanted to San Francisco, California, in 2019. I was diagnosed in 2015 while serving a prison sentence of 15 years to Life. I was diagnosed at Saint Quentin State Prison.

TPGA: Okay. that’s Something. I didn’t realize that those kinds of diagnostic services were available in the carceral system. Is that new? Or was that something that came about after you had been there for a while?

Joseph: It was all thanks to one clinician who used her clout to seek out my approval for testing and diagnosis.

TPGA: And is this somebody who had been working with you in a counseling capacity?

Joseph: Yeah. So, a little backtracking. I had been seeking an autism diagnosis test and diagnosis since around 2010, when I was in jail fighting my case. My attorney wanted to have me tested at the time. But that test, according to him, came back negative.

But then, after having some later conversations with my mom in 2010, it reignited my fire to seek an autism diagnosis. Fast forward to San Quentin, when I was transferred there. I was in a very depressive and withdrawn state, like I was going down in flames; just going away inside—so I decided to give the mental health system one more shot.

I had been denied and refused in every other prison I had been in, seeking testing and diagnosis. So I went there [in San Quentin] and they initially told me “No, we don’t test for that.”

But then they saw how like poorly I was doing, and they said, but we offer a broad spectrum test, do you want to take that? I said, Sure, why not? And that’s when I met my first clinician, Ms. Cline. And she was very empathetic. She saw that I was in a really bad way.

She said, I want you to hold on for two weeks. Can you do that for me? I’m going to see what I can do. And then and then she pulled me in 10 days later and said, I’ve got you scheduled for a test for autism.

TPGA: Where did you have that test done, or through what agency?

Joseph: it was done right there on site. At the time when I was there they had a psychiatrist who specialized in in childhood autism, but still that you know, as far as giving their opinions and experience that still counts. And then one of their directors also had a specialty in autism. And one of the intern psychiatrists or psychologists there also was studying autism. So the three of them were able to perform the test fairly accurately.

TPGA: And did getting that diagnosis change your experience as an incarcerated person?

Joseph: It was a really more of a personal victory, a great vindication. A lot of old things in my life got to be reexamined and explained better.

TPGA: What would be an example?

Joseph: Why it was so hard for me to get along with people and understand them. And why even when I thought I was part of a group, or a group of friends. I would find out later that I wasn’t—I was just like a joke, or, like a punch-me clown kind of a acquaintance to them.

But it also explained a lot of things like why I could learn things so quickly when I would touch them, and look at them, and examine them. There were a lot of different things that it explained away. Why, like I was so sensitive to bright light and sound and all those types of stuffs.

And it inspired me not give up on things, and to really try and pursue goals that were important to me.

TPGA: Okay, that’s fantastic to hear what a beneficial change it was for you to have that knowledge about yourself. Are you comfortable talking about how you ended up in prison? Because we don’t have to talk about that. But if you think it’s relevant.

Joseph: Yeah. While I was incarcerated, I did around six years of intense weekly therapy, and [through] this discovered that being on the spectrum was a major factor in the commission of my crime.

Along with being diagnosed on the spectrum. I was also diagnosed with a with a hero complex. I’m very protective. I’m very protective over the people I care about. That complex issue is directly related to like my self-esteem and self-image. So when I become very depressed and self loathing that hero stuff kicks in and drives me to push myself to become more than I believe, than I am in the eyes of others, to seek external praise and recognition.

So, long, long years of doing this to myself without help, or anyone to talk to, or without a diagnosis. led to me being a very bitter person, a very angry person. Very self destructive. I was diagnosed as parasuicidal, where consciously, I would never consider suicide. But my subconscious could recognize that I was in so much pain and anguish that we were seeking self destruction-like oblivion.

Not to get too deeply psychological or anything like that, but that led to a lot of failed attempts to help people, which led to a lot of depression and rage, and continuously fired off a desperation within the hero complex to do something right. And this led to me participating in a revenge killing of a man who was perceived to be raping and abusing a woman that was friends with my very good and trusted friend at the time.

TPGA: I see. Do you think, if you had self-recognition and support earlier in your life, that this is something that possibly could not have happened? If you were more able to understand, your self regulation needs and interpersonal relationships, and how being autistic affects that. And how it also affects how other people treat you? Do you think that your life would have been different if you knew you were autistic from the get-go?

Joseph: I believe so. And don’t get me wrong; I make no excuse for what I did, and I regret it, and will regret it for the rest of my life. It was unforgivable. That being said, I do not use my autism, or any of my diagnosis as an excuse for what happened.

I do know now, as the person that I have become. and evolve to become, through the treatment and therapies that I receive a likelihood of repeating this horrible mistake, this horrible tragedy would be almost zero.

TPGA: I think that that makes sense. And I hear what you are saying, because I think it’s different to have an explanation as opposed to an excuse. I hear you that there’s no excusing your actions.

But I also I’m interested because we see in the media that people will actually try to use autism as an excuse for egregious crimes, whether they are actually killings or other attempted crimes.

Our organization takes the stance that being autistic doesn’t mean you don’t know the difference between right and wrong. And I’m wondering what you think of the tendency in the media for people to try to use autism as an excuse for crimes.

Joseph: This touches on something that like touches on a bunch of different areas of concern, and is upsetting for me. I won’t say anger, but it upsets me. And also inspires me to talk about it.

I would say that society, communities, the law, social media. Everybody uses these blanket assessments of people, and they say that we can use autism to say that this person didn’t mean to shoot up a nursery, or do something else horrible. And you know they’re autistic. “They didn’t know any better.”

And that’s not the entire case. It’s not. It’s not just because they were autistic. There are a lot of factors, they’re called causative factors. There is something in your life that happened that caused your thoughts and behaviors to change in this direction. There’s a seed that was planted, something happened that caused this change in you.

I can use myself as an example, because my autism is my autism. It is no one else. No two autistics are the same. That statistic is still true. So when I was young, my father was non-existent. He would leave us, abandon us—and then come back and abandon us again.

The last time he left I was two years old. and he sat me down, and he said, “You are the man of the house. Now you have to protect the women. You have to do this.” And that planted a seed in me because I was already incredibly verbal, could read because I was autistic.

And I took what he told me very seriously, and it changed the course of my childhood. It wasn’t my autism that changed the course of my childhood. It was that seed my father planted, my thought that “I have to do what he says.”

Now, was that seed supported by my autistic traits and enforced by it. Sure. However, if I had a therapist or a clinician, a pastor, or anyone that could see that I was struggling, and acknowledge my struggle, and help me get help—then maybe that seed would have been unpacked, and possibly, removed from my life, removed from my thought processes, and wouldn’t have manifested later as a hero complex.

So there are causal factors. Little seeds, little things, I mean even you could even say the poisons sometimes implanted in us over the course of our lives that affect our behaviors later in life—or the next day, or you know the next hour.

Even so. When the news says” oh it’s not their fault because they’re autistic,” it’s unfortunate, because it’s not accurate. It’s like they’re using it as an insanity plea. But being autistic is not being insane [lacking culpability because of mental illness]. We may be damaged people at times. We may be really, really hurt. We may even be mentally ill. But being autistic doesn’t mean we’re [not guilty by reason of insanity].

If we commit a crime it’s because we didn’t have someone there to help us, or didn’t seek someone out to guide us, and that once again, the choice [to commit a crime] is made due to factors in our lives.

TPGA: When we hear stories in the news like this, it’s really infuriating, because it plays into not only into harmful and untrue stereotypes, but it also compounds fear and stigma about autistic people. So I’m grateful to hear your take on these matters.

I wanted to ask: It sounds like you were in several different carceral environments. You probably encountered a lot of different people. And knowing what you know now, do you consider there to be a relatively high percentage of undiagnosed autistic and neurodivergent people in those carceral systems?

Joseph: So, one in 36 people are diagnosed… I won’t even say autistic. I would say neurodivergent. And so in my explanations and even advocacy, I say if one in 36 people are diagnosed neurodivergent, and San Quentin State prison has 5,000 human beings in it, how many people is that? You know? And some people would say, it’s fifty or it’s a hundred.

I say, okay, so let’s aim high. Let’s say there are a hundred neurodivergent people in San Quentin right now. How many of them have been approached, or talked to about it? How many have been able to reach out to therapists or clinicians to talk about it? Have doctors talk to them about it? Or friends, family, anybody—or have you been diagnosed?

And out of this group of people, I’m the only one to raise my hand and say I was tested and diagnosed. To date. I can’t quote it and rubber stamp it, but I firmly believe I’m the only person to have been tested and diagnosed for autism in prison.

TPGA: Wow, okay.

That definitely needs to change. Are there other kinds of changes that you’d like to see in the carceral system to accommodate neurodivergent and autistic people, things that can be done even without the additional infrastructure requirements to provide diagnoses? What are things that we can do to make prisons more accommodating for neurodivergent people?

Joseph: Within the California Department of Corrections, where I served my term, there are zero protocols in place for a person with autism. They do not test for it, they do not treat it, they do not support it, they will not recognize it, and “accommodate” you. Even if you have a pre-existing provable diagnosis.

After I was diagnosed logic dictates, “Well, now that you have a diagnosis, you want to seek treatment.” I had read so many books by then about the types of treatments that I could have or received that I went in there all smiles, and willing to work with everybody.

They have this yearly hearing for their mental health patients. It’s a meeting between directors for head psychiatrists for mental health, and leading staff and officers for the custody side, the prison guards.

And at that hearing, they said, We understand that you’ve been tested and diagnosed for autism recently. That’s great. And I was like, yes, I’m very happy, thank you. And they said, “What do you want to do now, as a treatment plan?” And so I I said, well, I would like to try Cognitive structural therapy, to restructure my thought processes.

And this psychiatrist who was sitting before me. who looked like she was older than the redwood trees in California, just looked at me and says. oh, what is that?

I was just dumbstruck, gobsmacked, speechless. I couldn’t even think how to respond without offending everyone, because professionals like welders, electricians, and auto mechanics—all of these trades—one thing they have in common is that they are continuously having to upgrade, to learn new things and practices and skills. The book that I was reading was eight years old, which means that this form of treatment was at least ten years older than that, and that psychiatrist should be aware of it, should have at least heard of it.

That’s a long way to say that they have no treatments in place. They have no protocols in place—that was told to me repeatedly, both by psychiatrists at the time, by my regular doctor, and even authority figures would say, “I have no idea what to do with you. Just stay out of the way.”

As far as accommodations go, first, they need to have protocols set in place for testing, diagnosis, and treatment. Secondly, accommodations. And I’m not talking like having a private room, one of those safety rooms that are full of bouncy balls, which would be amazing. But you’re never gonna get that in prison, ever.

If the prison has to accommodate someone. They always tried to go bare, minimum, bare bones. Like, they wouldn’t let me have a weighted blanket.They wouldn’t let me have a white noise machine, or earplugs, or anything like that. I had to fight them for two years to get the right type of prescription glasses. Two years.

Finally the Warden had to step in and chew out the chief medical officer, saying, “You have no idea how sensitive this issue is right. Now. You have to give this man his glasses. We’re not even paying for them. His family is paying for them.” And they fired their optometrist.

I also couldn’t have a fidget spinner, I couldn’t have any digital tools. But I built this. [holds up small fidget cube to camera]

TPGA: Oh, wow!

Joseph: This is just a cube made out of press board, a type of like thicker cardboard.

It’s built out of pressboard and wood glue, and I made this almost eight years ago when I was incarcerated. I took it home with me because it was one of the things that would help keep me focused and help me cool down, because I could fidget with it, focus on something else, and get out of my head.

TPGA: If you hadn’t made that yourself, you wouldn’t have any sensory outlets at all. That is perfectly frustrating to hear. And I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to experience it.

When were you released from San Quentin? Is that the last place you were incarcerated?

Joseph: Yeah.

TPGA: What are you doing now?

Joseph: So I was released in 2019, basically, right when the pandemic struck, which was unfortunate. I chose to parole here [in San Francisco] because I though there was support of neurodivergence and autism. But that didn’t work out that great. The organizations up here have a lot of really strict prerequisites to adhere to before they offer support. It was unfortunate, and it became a self reliance game yet again.

It was pretty rough. But I refused to stop. I continuously move forward. I found work during the pandemic as, basically, a desk clerk for the emergency shelters in place here in San Francisco. I was helping look after displaced families in one of the rented out hotels. That continued all the way through 2020, but I wanted to do something more.

And so I had a case worker, Sabrina, who was helping me look for work, and she said, “How do you feel about school?” And I said, I like school. and she said, “What do you think about San Francisco State? Have you ever heard of an organization called Project Rebound?”

I said, no, and her eyes lit up. She made a couple of phone calls, and got me introduced to the director of Project Rebound. which is a non profit organization connected to San Francisco State for returning citizens who are justice-impacted to go to school and get a bachelor’s degree.

TPGA: Wonderful. How far into your degree are you?

Joseph: I was able to transfer in as a junior, but because I can’t go full time, it’s taking longer than anticipated to finish. But I still enjoy it very much. I’m pursuing a creative writing degree.

A good rule of thumb that I learned from other artists and writers is that until until you’re recognized and until you’re published you’re going to eat dirt, and that could take one year or tem years, or however long, so have something to keep you afloat while that’s while that’s in the process.

I always have had a really great affinity for technology where I could understand it, and operate it very quickly. I was approached by another case worker for an organization called City Wide who said, “Hey, there’s a great nonprofit here in the city called RAMS. They have an IT Training course. Would you be interested?”

And I said, “Yeah, that sounds great.” She said, “It’s a paid training.” I said, “That’s even better. I took that course and learned to become an entry level IT technician. That opened up a bunch of doors, and I got hired on as a sub contractor for Disney streaming services. That is helping me keep afloat while I pursue my degree.

I also worked as an editor for a non profit called Humans of San Quentin; they’re an amazing organization, they share the stories of the incarcerated around the world.

I live within a community called the The Second Life Project. It’s an intentional community in San Francisco, for formerly incarcerated peoples like myself and also never incarcerated peoples, who come together to learn from each other and heal from each other and grow. It’s pretty nice.

TPGA: That’s amazing. I’m so glad to hear; it sounds like you’re thriving now.

Joseph: Yeah, for the most part, for the most part, it’s wonderful. There have been setbacks. there have been disappointments and let downs. But for the most part, I am doing well. And I remember where I came from, that’s very important.

TPGA: Yeah, it sounds like now you have the scaffolding in place to succeed and to help you, if you do have setbacks. And to help you get to where you need to be, whereas before you didn’t have any of that.

So that’s that’s wonderful to hear. I’m really happy for you.

selfie of Joseph Krauter, a white man with short dark brown hair, dark sunglasses, and a salt-and-pepper beard. He is on a city street.
Joseph Krauter