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Train police to adapt to autism, urge researchers

Research finds contact with the law leaves 69% of people with autism troubled by how they were treated

Seven out of ten autistic adults were dissatisfied with their experiences with the police, reporting discrimination, a lack of clarity and feeling that their needs were not met, according to a new study led by academics at City University London and the University of Bath.

These responses were echoed by the experiences of police officers in England and Wales, with one in five police officers being dissatisfied with how they had worked with autistic individuals and only a minority of police officers having received training on autism.

The results emphasise the need for training that is tailored to specific policing roles, such as uniformed officers and specialist interviewers. The paper is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Involvement with the police can be a difficult experience for anyone, but especially for someone with autism. There are no figures for autistic involvement in the criminal justice system, but evidence suggests that individuals with autism can and do come into contact with the legal system, as victims, witnesses and suspects.

There are over 700,000 people with the condition in the UK, but detecting autism isn’t easy as there is no characteristic appearance associated with the condition – autistic people look just like anyone else, and not all behaviours associated with autism are very obvious.

Speaking about the study, co-author Dr Laura Crane from City University London said:

“Contact with police can be a stressful event. As a result, police officers, especially those in frontline roles, need to be aware of possible signs of autism.”

Such signs 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).

To find out more about police officer’s experiences of people with autism, the team used an online survey to gather the experiences and views of 394 police officers from England and Wales. They found that 42% of officers were satisfied with how they had worked with individuals with autism, with 21% reporting dissatisfaction (37% gave a neutral response).

Reasons for this varied, but a variety of barriers were cited, such as time and organisational constraints, as well as a lack of role-specific training, with just 37% of officers having received training on autism.

Using a different questionnaire, 31 autistic adults and 49 parents were asked about their experiences. They were also largely dissatisfied with their experience of the police and echoed the need for police training on autism. The majority of parents (74%) and autistic adults (69%) were dissatisfied with their experiences, reporting perceived or fear of discrimination, a lack of clarity and explanation, and feeling that their needs were not met.

In particular, many autism community respondents felt that an inappropriate physical environment (e.g., interview rooms, custody suites) coupled with a lack of appropriate support and explanation led to emotional stress, along with breakdowns in communication.

Dr Crane said:

“Autistic people are a vulnerable group within the criminal justice system. High quality training and support for police who may encounter autistic people within their role will ensure that the experience for all involved improves to the necessary level.”

Dr Katie Maras from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, who co-authored the report, said:

 “These findings highlight how police perceptions of their professional experiences with autistic witnesses, suspects, and victims differ from those of the autism community. It is essential that police feel better equipped with role-specific training about autism, and that they have the institutional support that allows them flexibly adapt their procedures in order to better support people with autism.”

Read more about the paper

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