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Policing autism

The puzzle pattern used by the Autistim Society
The puzzle pattern used by the Autistim Society reflects the complexity of the autism spectrum, with different colours and shapes representing the diversity of the people and families living with the condition

Direct entry into the higher reaches of the police service is becoming the government and College of Policing’s watchword for bringing innovative ways of working into forces. But how much does the service do to ensure it gets the most out of the skills and abilities of existing officers and staff?

Most police officers may be surprised to learn that among their colleagues there is a significant number with hidden disabilities such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome and dyspraxia – so-called autistic spectrum disorders. These conditions affect how people process information, so although dyspraxia (difficulties with communication and interaction) is different to both dyslexia (difficulties with literacy and language) and autism/Asperger’s (difficulties with relating to other people and the world at large), they are essentially caused by the same thing. For those on the spectrum, the world can seem a confusing and unpredictable place.

The UK’s National Autistic Society estimates that autism affects around 500,000 people in the country, or one in 100. Given that, you might expect the police service to be working hard to understand and support those officers who are on the spectrum themselves or who have family members on the spectrum, as well as those autistic people who officers may encounter in the course of their work.

Lack of understanding

Not so, according to John Nelson, who founded the National Police Autism Association in autumn 2015. The association is an anonymous internet forum with a few dozen members, although growing fast. Many of the members have family on the autistic spectrum but a significant number have the condition themselves. Given the fast rate at which the membership has grown, PC Nelson expects the membership to number in the hundreds in the coming months.

Officers use the forum to discuss a range of topics including reasonable adjustments to make for autistic colleagues, the lack of understanding of the condition among occupational health departments, supporting family members who have autism, and advice on how and whether to gain a diagnosis.

Officers on the forum cite the police service’s lack of ability at spotting and utilising the capabilities of – but also offering support to – colleagues who are or who have family members on the spectrum. They say they may struggle with some of the political or social aspects of policing but actually just think differently – so called ‘neurodiversity’ – and are often loyal, intelligent, innovative, with a good memory, among other positive traits.

PC Nelson set up the association when he was involved in the Hampshire Constabulary equality action group, after realising there was a gap in support and understanding for people on the spectrum. He says that, despite good work by some forces, officers still have a limited understanding of the condition and there is a stigma attached to autism, particularly when it comes to gaining promotion.

One officer from a UK force who is a member of the association’s forum, says: “Things are very unlikely to change unless people can see very good reason, ie why autistic spectrum conditions can be beneficial in [police] personnel. Things like honesty, loyalty to friends/colleagues, different ways of thinking and problem-solving, attention to detail, hypersensitivity in noticing things other people usually don’t. In fact, things like how autistic spectrum personnel can function well enough to appear like an ‘ordinary’ person (and not Rain Man) and are capable of functioning as a good officer who can be relied upon to back you up the moment you need it.”

PC Nelson cites Hampshire Constabulary as one force that has grasped the issue and put in reasonable adjustments for officers and members of the public on the autistic spectrum. Among the measures was the first police force autistic support group. In addition, candidates for promotion are given interview questions in advance to ease the difficulty those on the spectrum may have in answering unexpected and awkward questions. They are also allowed to take cue cards into job interviews. But the force has also made adjustments for those members of the public on the spectrum who are brought into custody – they are given laminated cards with pictograms to help them understand what is happening to them in more simple terms.

PC Nelson says: “There is a stigma without a doubt. Most police officers have a very limited understanding of autism. The only time they are likely to come across it is if they have arrested someone who needs an appropriate adult.

“Someone on the spectrum [who has been arrested] probably won’t disclose it so we would have to work out that they are on the spectrum which we are very bad at doing. It’s all about treating the public with decency and respect. Someone brought in for a minor offence could end up being treated far more harshly and unfairly than they should be. They may not understand the concept of legal advice or a solicitor; they might admit to things they shouldn’t admit to or say things they shouldn’t be saying if they’re not having the correct representation.”

The aim of the NPAA, PC Nelson explains, is for it to be a ‘focal point’ for sharing best practice so that forces can develop their support for people on the autistic spectrum, from occupational health to professional development.

Case study 1: a serving officer on the autistic spectrum states:

“Very often people like us are characterised as having a ‘disorder’ and the focus is on what we struggle with rather than what we’re good at and the positive traits we possess. Things like having a great visual memory – which means the quality of evidence we provide can usually be excellent – our attention to detail with case files, and (certainly for me) a high boredom threshold, making things like constant supervision and scene guarding easier than might be the case.

“There are other things people like us wish neurologically-typical people knew. The first is that you definitely know someone on the spectrum. They might not know themselves but in my force alone, there are probably 60 to 70 officers and staff who are on the spectrum. And for those who are unaware of what makes them different, life is exhausting. Because so much of what you consider normal is alien to us, we have to act ‘normal’ every single day in order to be accepted by our peers. And when we get it wrong, as we inevitably do, it’s our fault.

“For example, I find it really difficult to fake interest in some conversations that I don’t care about. I’ve been known to get up and walk off while someone is talking! So my point is, which would you prefer – the person who can’t lie very well or the person who is successfully fooling you and has been for years?!

“The second point is that often we are not only struggling with day-to-day lives ourselves, but also supporting a family member in the same position. I myself have a son with autistic spectrum disorder, and I know I’m not the only one in my position who spends half their time wondering why they don’t fit in at work and the rest of the time fighting with schools and local authorities to get the support my son needs.

“We are incredibly dependable, we are loyal, we are hardly ever racist or sexist, we are trustworthy and we can be extremely single-minded. My view is that we all have the potential to make exactly the kind of police officers and staff that the public wants. But it speaks volumes that you’ll find threads on [the NPAA] forum about the difficulties getting promoted and people agonising over whether to tell their colleagues and friends what makes them different for fear of being ostracised.

“If the statistics are correct we are the biggest minority group in the UK, bigger than all of the others put together. We don’t need pity, and we don’t need understanding. What we need is acceptance.”

Some people with autism struggle to ‘fake interest’ in conversations they don’t care about
Some people with autism struggle to ‘fake interest’ in conversations they don’t care about

Better use of abilities

Dave Bamber, Police Federation lead on autism spectrum condition, says: “Policing needs to make better use of its people and recognise their skills and abilities, but also their neurodiversity and different ways of thinking. Many people in the service will be on the spectrum – whether diagnosed or undiagnosed – and it is important we make the best use of their abilities in the same way that many of the world’s largest organisations and companies such as NASA and various technology firms do. It is important not only that we treat people within the service properly but also that we are better able to serve the public.”

PC Nelson adds: “The service needs to take a more intelligent approach to diversity. Diversity is about thinking and being different, it’s not about fitting into a box. However committed a force is to the cause of diversity, if the message isn’t getting through to middle managers then it’s going to go wrong. The key to that is education. Maybe the underlying feeling from some officers is that having autism means you’re not as mentally capable as others and that’s absolutely false. The issue that we see most often is supervisors making reasonable adjustments and working with occupational health who may not have an understanding [of the condition].

“It’s quite well known that people with Asperger's tend to visualise problems differently. These people will typically end up working somewhere like Apple or Microsoft and coming up with innovative ideas to make lots of money for someone. Our point is why can’t people like that end up working for the police service?”

To find out more visit www.npaa.org.uk or follow on Twitter @npaa_uk

Many people on the autistic spectrum have particularly strong skills when it comes to problem solving and analysing information
Many people on the autistic spectrum have particularly strong skills when it comes to problem solving and analysing information

Police magazine asked one officer from a UK force for her experience of being in the police with the condition. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome after joining the service and currently works in a crime management unit.

How does autism spectrum condition (ASC) affect or enhance your ability to perform your role?
I struggle with communicating all the facts of an incident to others. This obviously presents a potential officer safety issue alongside a more serious issue where things could get missed and have serious consequences. I also require direct instructions.
Alternatively, my written reports have never been an issue and I am highly skilled on the computer – I recently passed a course with 100 per cent and even had an email from the trainers to say how well I did, which was then sent to my line manager.

Do police forces/supervisors understand ASC and how to treat or get the best out of people on the spectrum?
Some are better than others. With the National Police Autism Association having recently been formed I’m hoping understanding will be more widespread, as well as destroying the myth that all people with ASC are Rain Man!

What should they do to get the best out of people with ASC?
Listen to what the person is saying about the aspects of the job they struggle with. Focus on what they can do and if possible, adjust their role so they are doing more of what they are good at and less of what they struggle with.

What are the pitfalls forces fall into in relation to ASC?
If the person with ASC falls into the trap of being in a role that does not suit them and leads to them making mistakes, it is very difficult for them to get the evidence required to move to a role in which they would excel. For example, a response team PC with a PDR declaring their work unsatisfactory would not be able to move into a role they would be better suited to because of the PDR assessment. It would then end up in a Catch-22 situation with the person unable to move on.

What effect does this have on officers and staff with ASC?
It is demoralising and could potentially lead to them making more mistakes, or a meltdown. Either of these could then lead to management action depending on how they react.

What benefits do people with ASC bring to policing – both in terms of internally and in dealing with the public?
Attention to detail, the ability to see the small details as well as the bigger picture, the ability to detach emotionally when required, good visual memory, ability to recall facts and points of law, and good problem-solving skills as well as the ability to think outside the box.

Have you told colleagues you have ASC?
Some. Some have not been surprised when I told them and others have been initially but when it has been explained to them they have understood. Everybody has accepted it, however. 

Case study 2: a serving officer states:

“I have just recently disclosed my Asperger’s to my supervisor and as an individual he has been excellent. I am being referred to occupational health but I am not hopeful regarding their actions.

“I do not believe there is the expertise among staff to help but I look forward to being proved wrong. One of the main issues is that females present differently with Asperger’s to males and I think this would be problematic for someone who didn’t know much about it.

“One of my biggest concerns about disclosing was that people would just see the label and assume I couldn’t do things – for example be told I couldn’t be operational, which is complete nonsense. Females often manage to mask their symptoms very successfully and this is very much the case for me so it is not obvious to anyone that I struggle.

“Where it affects me is the effort of maintaining the ruse – it means my time away from work has been reduced to spending days on my own trying to recover. That’s what prompted the disclosure in the end. As for how it affects me: I hate the telephone; I have problems recognising faces; I can’t tell if someone is lying or has underlying issues; interruptions are difficult; I prefer written communications rather than verbal instructions; I’m not good at small talk and I don’t get office politics... however, I also have an amazing memory; a massive ability to learn; I am intelligent, loyal, determined, and lots of other good things too. It’s important to remember being on the autistic spectrum has good points as well as bad.”

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