Autism is a condition that affects about one in a hundred of us. But few people understand or can recognise it. This can have serious implications when people with autism encounter the criminal justice system. Recent research by City University and the University of Bath suggests that most people with autism, and about 75% of their parents, are left very upset after dealings with the police. April is Autism Awareness Month, and Pod Academy’s Lee Millam went to talk to Dr Laura Crane of City University London, to find out more.
Lee Millam: Autism is a complex condition for which there is no cure. The main features are problems with social communication and interaction.
Laura Crane: Everyone with autism is very different, but people with autism all show the same key features – impairment in interacting with people socially and repetitive behaviours, interests and activities.
These really vary so you could have one persion with autism who is very verbally and intellectually able, whereas others may not speak, they may have intellectual disabilities and may need full time care to meet their needs.
Autism can affect anybody, we don’t know what causes it and it is sometimes quite hard for people to be diagnosed because some signs can be very subtle. But it can affect anybody. One in a hundred means 700,000 people in the UK.
Because we don’t know what causes autism there are no treatments, but there are lots of interventions available to enable people with autism to lead rewarding and fulfilling lives – in schools, in the community – to help people with autism get jobs or help them learn in the classroom. But there is no cure. If you have autism you live with it throughout your life.
There have been lots of high profile cases in the media where people with autism have come in contact with the police and the outcomes haven’t been very positive.
We wanted to see whether these experiences were rare, but actually they were very common. It wasn’t just these extreme cases we hear about. We did a survey of 400 police officers and 100 member of the autism community (parents and autistic adults) and we asked them about the experiences of autism within the criminal justice system – what they think worked well and not well.
The police were generally fairly satisfied with how they worked with individuals with autism but the autistic adults and their parents were not. 69% were dissatisfied. It shows there is a disparity between the views of the police and the view of people with autism themselves. That is something that needs to be addressed.
One of the key problems is that the police often direct their resources towards people with quite classic signs of autism – difficulties with language, intellectual impairment, very clear social impairments. And on the other end of the spectrum you have individuals who are very articulate, very verbally and intellectutally able and they’re often termed as having ‘high funtioning autism’ or Asperger’s syndrome. When the police come into contact with someone with a diagnosis of high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrom, they might see that their symptoms aren’t very obvious. They can verbalise what happened and give a fairly good account of what’s gone on, but actually they need a lot of help and support as well and I think the police might overlook that because they’ll over estimate the capabilities of that person.
I think one of the key issues is autism awareness. Lots of people have heard of autism, they may be aware of a friend or family member who has an autism diagnosis, but few people know exactly what that means. They wouldn’t necessarily know if someone they met had autism. It is a hidden condition unlike other conditions (eg Down’s Syndrome where people have a characteristic appearance). Training police officers about the characteristics of autism – so when they encounter someone with autism they can identify that this person is vulnerable and think, we should do as much as we can to support this person.
Police officers were aware of this need and they commented that it wasn’t just autism awareness training they needed but training specific to their policing role – detectives would need training on how best to interview people with autism and the kind of questions to use, whereas response officers would need more training on how to identify autism within the eople they might come into contact with on the streets.
Involvement with the police can be stressful for anybody let alone somone with autism but I think there are several characteristics of autism that mean involvement with the police is even more stressful for people with autism. They often have sensory sensitivities – they may be particularly sensitive to certain sounds, or to what somepeople consider to be small things in their environment such as lights or furniture in the room and people with autism very often have a dislike of change, so going into a new environment they have not seen before can be incredibly stressful. It is really important the police are aware of these quite subtle issues.
There are lots of pockets of excellent practice within the police, in lots of different forces where they are doing a lot for people with autism to help support them within the criminal justice system but this needs to be much more widespread, and it is difficult because we are in times of austerity and the police have an awful lot they have to do. There role is very demanding. There are lots of areas in which they need training, but autism does affect so many people and the police are likely to encounter people with autism within their roles, so I think it is important not just for people with autism but for the police themselves to be supported in dealing with the community as a whole.
The criminal justice system needs better support in dealing with autism and we have some projects that we are starting. We are looking at judges, barristers, solicitors trying to see what their needs are and how we can best address them.
There are lots of pockets of excellent practice – some police forces are developing easy- read documents, for example, so that when vulnerable people come into contact with the police they know exactly what is going to happen in a way that is understandable for them. It is really important that they things are made widespread and more available. A lot needs to be done and it is by getting the views of the police and the autism community and bringing those together that we can see what the issues are and where we need to target resources.
- Cold Noise, Time
- The Light Galaxia, While She Sleeps
- Lucky Dragon, Open Melody
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You may also be interested in our podcast on Treating autism, the promises, perils and politics of pharmaceutical intervention – which looks at a major Europe-wide research project on the causes and potential treatments for autism, as seen from the perspective of people with autism and their parents.