Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 5 – what the police need to know continued

policeAs with the first part of this article, it is important that the police remember that each of the issues covered here might not apply to every autistic person, and there may well be issues that arise which are not covered in these articles.  It is also important to remember that it might not be as simple as a person coming in and saying `I have autism, and that is why I am behaving in this way`; sometimes the person may not disclose they have autism, or they may be undiagnosed, and it will be up to the police to use their judgement and act accordingly.

Below are a few more things that it is important for the police to remember when dealing with autistic, or potentially autistic individuals.

  • Proximity – sometimes having people in close proximity can be problematic for autistic people.  Sitting too close, leaning in to people, or sometimes even sitting next to them can be difficult.  It is important to try to keep a reasonable distance from the person with autism.  Otherwise they can feel overwhelmed, and distressed by the invasion of their personal space.  The other side of this of course is that autistic people sometimes don’t understand the concept of personal space, and proximity.  They can be the ones who stand too close, lean in, and can sometimes appear as if they are trying to intimidate a person, or are completely disregarding someone else`s need for personal space.
  • Touch – there is the possibly that the autistic person might appear to be rude by refusing to shake hands.  This can come off as them appearing to be arrogant when it reality this isn’t the case.  There have been cases in the past where autistic people have come in to conflict with police officers on the street.  In one case somebody was distressed and suffering from an overload, and the police officer put their hand on the autistic person’s shoulder to try to calm them down leading to the autistic person lashing out.  The more distressed somebody with autism becomes the more unhelpful physical contact actually is.  There is a saying about pouring petrol on to a fire, and if somebody with autism is becoming distressed reaching out and touching them physically is only going to cause more problems in many cases.  There may of course be situations where somebody is a danger to themselves or the public, and the police have no choice but to restrain them in some way.  Physical restraint is a difficult issue.  It can`t always be avoided, but it can go badly wrong, or be abused so each case has to be looked at in its own right.
  • Volume of voice – sometimes talking too loudly can lead to a person with autism simply not being able to understand the words that are being said.  If a person talks too quietly, and there is back ground noise somebody with autism would struggle to filter out that noise, and hear what is being said.  Added to this the fact that a lot of people with autism struggle to assert themselves, and may not be able to ask somebody to speak up or repeat what they`ve said.  It is important that the police use clear, calm and measured voices when talking to autistic people.
  • Sounds – this has been discussed to a degree in previous articles.  But it is worth reiterating here as it is so important.  Background noise can be incredibly distracting to people with autism as they struggle to filter out individual noises from a mix.  The best thing the police could do is to make sure they are in a quiet and calm environment when they talk to someone who is autistic.
  • Smells – on the subject of sensory issues, smells that might be undetectable to neuro-typical people can be distressing, and even sickening to autistic people.  This is a more difficult issue to deal with as the smell could be anything, from a cleaning product used throughout the building, to a particular aftershave or perfume the police officer might be wearing.  It is not so much a case of being able to remove the smell.  It is really more that the police need to remember that autistic people live in a world where small and seemingly insignificant sights, sounds and smells are amplified to a degree where they can become overpowering.
  • Processing Information – it can take autistic people a lot longer than others to process even simple information.  People shouldn’t infer from this that they are somehow unintelligent, or what is being said is going over their head completely.  Information just takes a little longer to be absorbed.  The police could deal with this by breaking up what they are saying, giving the autistic person time to process, and go over each bit of new information before going on to the next.  Especially if they are going over something complex which might be new to the autistic person, such as legal proceedings, or the details of a crime.
  • Formulating a response – following on from processing information, it can take some people with autism longer than most to formulate a response.  Their response could be perfectly articulate and intelligent when it comes, it may just take a bit of time to arrive.  Pushing for a faster response won`t actually get the police anywhere.  A lot of police officers when interviewed talk about how giving a suspect or witness time to think after they have finished asking a question is important, and this principle should definitely be applied when talking to somebody with autism.  Don’t overwhelm them with too much information, and give them time to adequately formulate a response.

In a strange way autistic people have a lot of characteristics that could be useful in a career as a police officer: an eye for detail, a lack of over-the-top emotional reactions, a clear and logical mind, a strong sense of justice, and the ability to focus their minds completely on one task.  It is just unfortunate that some of these things can lead to problems when actually dealing with the police.

If police officers are adequately trained in how to recognise autism, and how to interact with autistic individuals – and they make sure they don`t grow lazy, and they keep applying the skills that they have learned – then there is no reason why autistic people`s interactions with the police can`t run more smoothly.  Every individual is different.  Most autistic people will recognise at least some of the points in these articles, if not all of them. And the police have nothing to gain from not preparing themselves, and dealing correctly with the autistic individuals they encounter.