People with autism can get into trouble with the police, when police intervention may not be needed. This can be due to a number of reasons potentially linked to their autistic behaviour:
People with autism often experience high levels of anxiety and distress; any confrontation with the police is likely to increase anxiety. Even if someone with autism appears to be rational and intelligent, which may often be the case, you need to remember that you are dealing with someone with Autism and should adjust your behaviour to help reduce the stressful nature of the situation for the person with autism. Autism is a ‘hidden disability’ and is often not identifiable in the person’s physical appearance. Many individuals may not have been diagnosed and it is only when an incident results in their first encounter with the police that their condition is recognised.
Remember, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lifelong disorder affecting the development of the brain characterised by impairments in social interaction, communication (verbal and non verbal) and imagination. Alongside these impairments people with autism often demonstrate some of the following:
Autism West Midlands have developed the Attention Card in partnership with the police service. This card is already carried by more than 2000 people with autism. It has space on the reverse to include the contact details of a person they trust to assist them. In stressful situations professionals are able to contact this person.
If you or someone you know needs to carry this card, you can apply for one online. Click here to apply for an attention card.
When responding to a call that involves a person with autism, officers may face a situation that will challenge the training, instincts and professional conduct of even the most experienced officer. Whilst officers may approach what they perceive to be a ‘run of the mill’ incident in a manner they have developed to ensure their own safety and that of others their mere presence may cause what they perceive as inappropriate response by a person with autism.
Remember a person with autism does not understand the implications of their behaviour or the consequences of their actions even if their actions are aggressive. They may run, failing to respond to an order to stop or drop to the floor or begin to rock back and forth or avoid eye contact with the officer. Officers should not misinterpret these actions as a reason for increased use of force as this may cause the autistic person’s behaviour to escalate into more violent or aggressive behaviour or even totally withdraw into themselves because of their fear, frustration or confusion. In this situation they will just want the circumstances to become less frightening but do not have the ability to formulate a way to implement such a change particularly when anxious or distressed.
The following points will be helpful to the police and professionals throughout the Criminal Justice System when communicating with someone who has autism:
If officers take a person into custody and suspect they have autism, to reduce the risk they must be treated as vulnerable and will require ‘constant watch’ during their time in custody.
Here is some basic advice in dealing with the person on the spectrum at this stage of proceedings:
Give advance notice to the Custody Unit to ensure the desk and entrance area is clear of all other persons on arrival as this will help to keep the person calm.
A doctor should always be called and informed of the suspicion that the person under arrest may have autism.
An appropriate adult who knows them and understands their behaviours should be sought immediately in order to help reduce their anxiety and assist officers with their processes - if they have an ‘Attention Card’ (see above) details of a suitable contact will be on the reverse.
We are working with the police and other emergency services to provide them with training and advice on recognising and dealing with people with autism.
If you would like further information about the Attention Card or our work with the Criminal Justice system, please fill in this form.