Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 3 – Environment

SONY DSCWhen a person with autism is going to be spoken to by the police they have no way of knowing where the interview will take place.  If they are suspected of a crime then it is entirely possible they will be under arrest, and be spoken to in an interview room at a police station.  If this is the case they will find themselves in a strange new environment which they may struggle to adapt to.  Perhaps it will be too light or too dark, or they may be uncomfortable with the room temperature.  Of course they might not be in an interview room; they could be in somebody`s office, and find it hard to concentrate with distractions either from the building, or through the windows.  It might not be possible for the person with autism to have control over the environment.

Below are some of the issues that may arise when somebody with autism finds themselves in a new and unfamiliar environment.

  • Lighting – some people with autism have problems concentrating if there is a certain kind of lighting in the room.  It may be that a light flickers too much.  Strip lighting can often be a particular problem if this is the case.  Official building such as hospitals and police stations will often have harsher lighting than perhaps a more homely environment.  Sometimes this isn’t even due to the lighting, but rather the fact that the walls tend to be pale.*  This sounds like a completely minor detail, but often when it comes to autism it is the supposedly `minor` details that can have the biggest impact.
  • Temperature – temperature can often have strange effects on people with autism.  Some autistic people are hypo-sensitive to temperature; comfortably walking around in the winter in a T-Shirt, or wearing a coat in the middle of summer.  Whereas other autistic people often have to try their best to maintain a set temperature throughout the year.  It is not necessarily the case of a temperature dropping or rising to a point where it will be noticeably uncomfortable in the room.  Sometimes central heating can be uncomfortable for people with autism because of its artificial nature.  Again this might seem strange to people – autistic or not – who don’t experience it, but changes in temperature, however subtle can often be felt sooner, and with greater impact, by people with autism.  This, along with everything else on this list, can impact on a person`s ability to concentrate and remember.  Therefore compromising their ability to give accurate, and helpful statements to the police.
  • Adjusting to a new room – Even if there is nothing particular in the room that is distressing or distracting to the autistic person, it can be the case that simply being in a new environment takes time to adjust.  A person might have to get acquainted with their surroundings, and find out where they feel comfortable.  They might need time to adjust to the sights, and smells of the room.  If they are going to be interviewed or questioned their mind will therefore have to be working, and taking the time to adjust to the new room is important if they are going to have to think and concentrate.
  • Distractions – there could be noise coming from outside the room such as people walking by in the corridor, which could make it difficult for the person with autism to focus.  The window might be open and there could be all kinds of noise drifting up from the street.  There could be the sounds of a radio or music coming from somewhere in the back ground.  It is entirely possible that a neuro-typical person might filter these sounds out without even trying to, but this can be a difficult skill for people with autism to master.  It is not that they are being rude by being easily distracted, it is just that what might seem like harmless background noise to a neuro-typical person can be a constant assault on the senses to someone who is autistic.  It would probably be advisable for the police to try to find as quiet a room as possible to talk in.
  • Claustrophobia – feelings of claustrophobia can happen in many settings.  It doesn’t only occur if somebody is in a narrow tunnel hundreds of feet underground.  People can become claustrophobic in lifts, tents or even traveling on aeroplanes.  If somebody with autism finds themselves in a relatively small room, with a police officer or two, and a lawyer or social worker, claustrophobia can definitely kick-in, leaving the individual feeling confused, and stressed, and possibly on the way to an outburst or meltdown, or even a shutdown.

If the autistic person is suspected of a serious crime then the police might not be too concerned about the personal comfort of the individual. But if the police want to talk to them for some other reason, and they are aware that the person is autistic, the best thing to do would be to let that person choose where they were going to talk, therefore placing themselves in an environment where they feel comfortable, and more able to communicate.

Even if the person is suspected of a serious crime, making them uncomfortable in their environment won’t necessarily help in gaining information.  If somebody becomes so distressed they shut down and are unable to speak, what use is this to the police?  When talking to somebody with autism – whatever the reason behind the talk – the police, for their own sake as much as the autistic individuals, should make sure the talk is conducted in an environment that is suitable, and allows the autistic person to concentrate, and focus as much as possible.

Previous articles in the series can be found below

Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 2

conflictAre people with autism more likely to come in to contact with the criminal justice system?  And if so, why? It goes without saying that not all autistic people are potential criminals, but there are certain factors that might make it more likely for somebody with autism to come in to contact with the criminal […]

Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 1

criminal justice systemThere things in autistic people`s behaviour that can make them more vulnerable when they come in to contact with the criminal justice system? Getting in to trouble with the police isn’t a pleasant experience for anybody.  However, if this does happen there are certain ways that people are expected to behave when they are arrested, […]