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Raising awareness of autism with the Metropolitan Police Service

The third event of its kind at City for Metropolitan Police Officers, to raise their awareness of the characteristics of autism and the role of Registered Intermediaries for vulnerable witnesses, and to discuss the issues that arise for policing.

by Shamim Quadir

City, University of London recently hosted an autism awareness event for over 150 officers from the Metropolitan Police Service. The aim was to raise awareness of the characteristics of autism and the role of Registered Intermediaries for vulnerable witnesses, and discuss the issues that arise for policing.

Organised by Professor Lucy Henry from the School of Health Sciences at City, along with her colleagues Dr Laura Crane from University College London and 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’.

This is the third awareness event of its kind with the Metropolitan Police Service, but crucially, the first since the research project concluded, allowing the final results to be shared with stakeholders in the wider criminal justice system.

Interim findings shared at previous awareness events had already suggested that using Registered 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 into their accounts.

However, the final results of the project further showed that, using Registered Intermediaries enables typically developing children to identify mock perpetrators more accurately, and to resist barrister challenges during cross-examination more effectively.  Further, autistic children were found to recall events just as reliably as typically developing children. Despite recalling fewer facts, the information that children on the autism spectrum did recall was just as accurate.

Reflecting on the findings, Professor Henry said:

This event was an opportunity to highlight the two key results of our empirical research project.  Firstly, autistic children can be reliable witnesses - as they performed as well as non-autistic peers in many respects.  Secondly, that Registered Intermediaries, who assist children and other vulnerable witnesses to communicate when being interviewed by the police or in court, improve the volume and accuracy of children's evidence.

Strategies for interviewing people with autism

Dr Kev Smith, National Vulnerable Witness Adviser at the National Crime Agency discussed his strategies to support officers interviewing autistic witnesses.  He also shared how his own previous experience as a police officer and as father of autistic children himself, had helped him educate officers on the subject.

Personal experience of autism and the criminal justice system

Robyn Steward, 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 and why she wants to help others, Robyn said:

“Some autistic people feel that the police will believe them.

Sometimes, someone can be really bright and articulate, but under the surface they have difficulty understanding social situations. The only reason I went to police was to try and stop it happening to someone else.

She later added that clear communication from police officers, and opening a dialogue to learn more is important:

“Let people know that your job is to help them.  Ask them about autism. No two people with autism are the same.”

The role of the Registered Intermediary

Registered Intermediaries Catherine O’Neill, Nicola Lewis, and Odina Nzegwu shared their combined years of experience to give the audience an overview of the general role of the Registered Intermediary in supporting vulnerable people navigate the criminal justice system, a specific insight into the use of visual aids to support autistic people, and example case studies to illustrate some of the scenarios they had experienced, and what they did to support their clients effectively.

Positive feedback

Written feedback from delegates was overwhelmingly positive about the value of the event.

Delegates reported a significant improvement in their knowledge and awareness of autism, and registered intermediaries and their roles, also in their confidence to interview an autistic person and confidence to request a registered intermediary on a case.

Testimonials about the event included:

“It's been a very informative day with a great deal of valuable knowledge shared with us. It is certainly a worthwhile event for both police and anyone else involved in the justice system. Thank you!”

Brilliant training - it should be mandatory! Absolutely no "filler" - all information that was relevant and enlightening, and great speakers across the board.

“An excellent day! Thank you! Very well balanced between academic expertise, practical experiences provided by the RIs and first-hand knowledge from Robyn, actually affected by autism. Well organised and well worth it.”

“Very informative seminar all officers should attend. Will use what I have learned in future.”

“MPs must raise the level of awareness and training in this vital area.”

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