Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 4 – what the police need to know

policeIf somebody has been taken in for questioning by the police, either because they have been suspected of a crime, or because they are a witness of some sort, then actually being spoken to by the police might be incredibly difficult.  They could become overwhelmed and unable to provide any information, or they could become so stressed that they end up getting themselves in to more trouble that they need to be in.

The following points are aimed at the police in a way; things that are essential for them to remember in order to get the best out of an interview with an autistic person.  Nobody wants to feel like they have wasted a few hours of their time, but it is also important for autistic people to remember these points, so that they can be more prepared for if they ever do find themselves talking to the police.

  • Change of Routine: changes of routine, however small, can have a massive effect on people with autism.  It can make it difficult for them to function and think clearly as well as leaving them more vulnerable to outbursts and meltdowns.  If the police need to speak to a person then it is going to be pretty hard for them to do so without changing that person`s routine.  So in this situation it is not so much about not changing the person`s routine, as it is about being understanding about the difficulties that may arise from this. Maybe try to keep the interactions short.  If someone with autism gets distressed, and overwhelmed they probably won`t be able to think of any relevant information anyway, so the entire process becomes useless.  Letting them know what will happen, and when will also help.
  • Literal – sometimes people with autism can take things literally.  It would be advisable for the police to remember this, and stay away from phrases that could be misunderstood.  They should talk clearly, and explain exactly what they mean rather than being sarcastic.  If they just assume that everything they say will be taken literally then it avoids the problem entirely.
  • Pedantic – being pedantic can sometimes be thought of as being literal, but it isn’t the same thing.  Being pedantic can mean arguing over seemingly small and irrelevant points.  In a way this could be helpful to the police as it does mean that people with autism can often be much more specific if they have been witness to a crime than other, less pedantic people might be.  But just like taking things literally, the police do need to remember that they have to be specific and exact in the things that they say.
  • Regular breaks – this will probably apply to most people with autism.  The regularity and length of the breaks will vary, but in order to get the best out of somebody it will be important to allow them breaks.   Even if the police believe somebody is guilty of a serious crime, there is no point questioning them to the point where they shutdown.  Taking breaks allows the autistic individual to regain some of their energy.  If somebody with autism is worked past the point where they need to stop they will often become unresponsive.  This is especially important if the autistic person is a victim, or a witness.  In order for them to accurately recollect and account details of a crime they need to be given the time to do so in their own way.
  • Sensory Overload – sensory overloads can occur for many different reasons.  Being in a busy or noisy environment such as a police station could easily be the cause.  Once a person is having a sensory overload there is absolutely no point in questioning them further. They won’t be able to think clearly, and understand what is going on in their own head, let alone communicate it to somebody else.  Also there is the risk that the person may then have a meltdown or outburst, and become abusive or aggressive through no fault of their own.  This could obviously lead to a police officer being injured, but it is more likely to lead to the autistic person getting in to trouble, which would have been entirely avoidable if the police had handled the interview right in the first place.
  • Meltdowns – it is important for the police to remember that when an autistic person gets to the point of meltdown or outburst they can go from being perfectly mild mannered and friendly to – in extreme cases – shouting, physically lashing out, or hurting themselves.  Of course the police will be used to dealing with this kind of behaviour, but possibly not with the reasons behind it.  It won’t always be the person who is being questioned over a crime who has an outburst.  It could be someone who has suffered a sensory overload having been kept waiting in a busy waiting room for too long.  If somebody has recently been the victim of a crime they will be distressed like anybody else, but their distress might show itself in what appears to be violent or disruptive behaviour.  Outbursts and meltdowns are just ways of the body releasing stress that has built up.  The autistic person doesn’t have control over them in the moment, and perhaps can`t even see them coming.  The best way to prevent them is by taking note of the other points in this series, and making sure that they are all acted upon.  If the police keep somebody with autism in a room for hours, and fire question after question at them then they should know that it is likely that person will have some kind of outburst, or shutdown.  Provoking somebody to this point can`t be helpful to the police, and is completely unnecessary.  This is not to say it would be done deliberately, but the police should know better than anybody that ignorance is no defence.
  • Emotional Reactions – the concept of reacting emotionally is a strange one.  People say things all the time that don’t really mean anything; `guilty people don’t do this`, `innocent people don’t say that`.  The problem is that people with autism, even though small things can be massively distressing, have a tendency to be able to take more serious situations in their stride.  If somebody with autism was accused of a crime they didn’t commit, it might be entirely possible that this wouldn’t worry them at all.  Why should it?  They are completely innocent.  But the police may expect some kind of emotional reaction.  If they say to somebody `you are accused of murder` and the person simply said `ok`, they might assume this is the reaction of a  guilty person who has been waiting to be arrested, whereas in reality it is the reaction of a person who knows they are innocent, and so doesn’t feel stressed or upset about the situation.  On the other hand, the autistic person may be feeling all kinds of things, but they are unable to process these feelings, express them in a way that others would expect, or even show any emotion on their face.  The point is that when the police are dealing with somebody who is autistic, or even somebody they strongly believe to be autistic, they should disregard everything they think they know about emotional reactions to situations.

It is important for the police to remember that even though autistic individuals might know all of these points, and might try to do their best to avoid things such as sensory overload or outbursts, they can`t do it alone.  The police have to be willing to help.  Not that they have to give autistic people preferential treatment – just different, more autism-friendly treatment.  Many police officers may be aware of autism as a concept, but looking at it specifically, and breaking down the individual elements that can have an impact on interactions with the police should be an important part of their training.

Autism and the Criminal Justice System – what the police need to know, will continue in Part 5 of this series.