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Metropolitan Police Awareness Event: Autism and Policing

Event raises awareness of the characteristics of autism and discuss the issues that arise for policing

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

City University London hosted an autism awareness event for 130 officers from the Metropolitan Police Service earlier this month. The aim was to raise awareness of the characteristics of autism and discuss the issues that arise for policing.

Organised by Professor Lucy Henry and Dr Laura Crane from the School of Health Sciences at City, along with their colleague Dr Rachel Wilcock from the University of Winchester, the event arose from a government-funded research project entitled ‘Access to justice for children with autism’.

Although the project is still ongoing, the research has already shown that using intermediaries (impartial, trained professionals who facilitate communication between vulnerable witnesses and members of the Criminal Justice System) enables typically developing children to recall more correct details about an event, while also not introducing any more errors.

With a wide range of talks, from the direct experiences of individuals with autism, to experts supporting police officers in their roles (e.g., intermediaries and police officers with extensive experience of interviewing vulnerable witnesses), attendees were given a comprehensive overview of current research at City, as well as how to improve the quality of interviews with those with autism. This included talks about how best to interview children and adults with autism, the role of the intermediary for vulnerable witnesses with autism and effective communication tools and techniques.Starting off the event, Professor Henry spoke about the need to be able to identify when someone has autism, and ensure their comfort and dignity during interviews, as often people with the disorder need more support.

Autism is not rare, as there are over 700,000 people with the condition in the UK, but detecting autism isn’t easy as there are no characteristic appearances or definitive diagnostic tests - instead, diagnosis is based on clinical judgement.

Police in GlasgowAs a result, members of the public and those in frontline roles need to be aware of possible signs. These can include problems with social interaction (e.g. avoiding eye contact), problems with language and communication (e.g. literal understanding), and also poor behavioural flexibility (e.g. obsessional interests).Highlighting the wide range of behavioural and individual traits characteristic of autism, Professor Henry referred to the widely-used quote: “When you’ve met one person with autism… you’ve met one person with autism.”

Robyn Stewart, a professional autism-awareness trainer who also is autistic herself, then spoke about her personal experiences of autism and the criminal justice system. Recounting her experience of being the victim of a crime, Robyn spoke about how as a person with autism she found it hard to talk about it, especially as she had no or prior experience or context for some of the things that had happened to her.

Speaking about the typical interviewing setting, Robyn also spoke about the fear it caused and how it made it hard to speak, as “people on the autism spectrum worry about being believed.”

Robyn went on to give useful tips such as saying how visual demonstrations with drawings or Lego figures would have been helpful to explain what had happened.Next up, Phil Morris, an expert in vulnerable witnesses from Greater Manchester Police, and Dr Katie Maras, an academic at the University of Bath, shared the stand to discuss interviewing people with autism.

“Police stations and interview rooms can often be the worst place to interview people with autism,” said Phil, going on to say that interview plans are incredibly important for officers. Phil then highlighted the example of Peter, a victim of crime with autism, who really struggled with being interviewed in a police station to the extent that he had picked the skin on his fingers until they bled. Summing this up and pinpointing the vital need for awareness, Phil said that “people with autism can provide excellent evidence if they are adequately supported.”

Dr Katie Maras went on to discuss memory in people with autism, saying how people with the condition often have excellent memory when it comes to recalling facts - such as Henry VIII’s wives. However, other types of memory may not be quite as good, and as a result, research into alternative approaches (e.g., the sketching of scenes) can show how such measures help people with autism report more correct details.

Following Dr Maras, Jan Jones (a registered intermediary), spoke about her role. Functioning as impartial, trained professionals who facilitate communications with vulnerable witnesses (including people with autism), intermediaries enable the witness to communicate a response to officers, while also advising members of the criminal justice system on how best to pose questions.

Following Jan, Dr Michelle Mattison, who is both an academic and a registered intermediary, spoke about effective communication, and how open questions can be problematic. As a result, it is better to ask ‘cued, directive questions’ (e.g., “What happened next?”) and use props such as drawing, dolls or calming objects to improve recall.

To conclude the event, delegates then took part in a demonstration session of what had been discussed throughout, enabling a more in-depth conversation with the intermediaries.Speaking about the event, Professor Lucy Henry said: “This event combined the academic and practice expertise of a range of people, from interview experts, people with autism to trained intermediaries.

“Autism covers a wide spectrum of disorders and it is incredibly important that people with autism are given appropriate support in difficult situations and also that officers are also given the tools and techniques to enable effective communication with people with autism. This event was a great success, and hopefully this is just the start of a fruitful relationship between City University London and the Metropolitan Police.”

For more information about the research project, visit www.childwitnesses.com

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.