Autism is the one sub-category of mental disorder which I believe warrants a special consideration in how the police service approaches its responses to individuals and to incidents. Argubaly, this is necessary in order to challenge the notion that it is a mental disorder at all. Debate about that is ongoing an depending upon whether you are talking medical, legally or socially, you may get different answers.
I argue that police officers need specific awareness of autism and Asperger’s – not only in relation to potential recognition of such conditions, although that is difficult even from trained professionals – but also into de-escaltion, the use of force and implications for justice. This article is necessarily broad-brush and will followed up in future with some specific posts on certain issues, including by guest bloggers who have offered to help.
Firstly, those in our society on the autistic spectrum are the only service users to benefit from specific legislation – the Autism Act 2009 which gives rise to specific statutory guidance. Secondly, autism and Asperger’s can present in exceptionally low-profile ways, especially low profile to police officers. Only when exposure to social situations has brought about an adverse reaction can it become obvious that a police officer is dealing with someone who may need to be considered as mentally disordered or “on the spectrum”. Thirdly, from time I have spent listening to speakers in training events and conference which have included professionals, academics and parents or carers, it is clear that achieving a diagnosis at all can be extremely difficult and that access to appropriate services can be even harder once a diagnosis is obtained. Fourthly, given debates about whether it is even valid to consider autism and Asperger’s as a mental disorder, it occupies a position of ongoing ambiguity in terms of how it is classified and this links to all sorts of other debates about legalities and implications.
If you don’t know very much about Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, then you should consider reading more about what they actually are on the National Autistic Society website. It is replete with information and resources and there is a specific guide for Criminal Justice professionals. It is also fair to say, that health and mental health professionals have been accused of being under-aware of the spectrum in their delivery of mainstream mental health services and that they should be seeking to do more and know more about it.
Police officers would do well to bear in mind the following (all too brief) advice whenever they know or suspect they are interacting with someone with autism; but also, do look on the above websites for far more:
- Communication must be clear – avoid jargon, acronyms and metaphors; your speech may be taken very literally so bear this in mind.
- Patience is a virtue – rushing, issuing ultimata and orders can heighten tensions; force, as ever, is the last resort, only where absolutely needed.
- Take account of familiarity / routine – taking advice from or including people familiar with a person, their routine and their normality can reap huge benefits and avoid inadvertently escalating situations.
The Invisible Disability
I once heard a parent speak of “The invisible disability” of her son’s autism at an event where I was asked to speak about policing in relation to autism and mental illness. Her son’s diagnosis had been achieved only after he was arrested by their local police and after they had contacted her following arrival at the police station (he was 16 at the time). Discussions in custody led to the young lad being ‘diverted’ without being charged and the subsequent health sign-posting led to his diagnosis. Interestingly, she made it clear that it was the police custody sergeant suggesting that he wondered whether autism was an issue, which lead to that being considered. The custody sergeant’s daughter was autistic. The FME who had already examined him upon arrival at the station, had not raised such concerns. It lead to a second medical examination to achieve the required sign-posting and this led to diagnosis. The main thrust of her input, concerned a lack of services to support her family after battling to even get that far.
Other stories are not so positive: I remember a few years ago hearing of a case where an adult man with a diagnosis had presented his “Autism Alert Card” to a custody officer after arrest. He had been arrested after being followed by a police car and required to stop – the UK police have a legal authority to stop any driver without what the Americans would call, “probable cause”. Quite simply, the young lad was driving a large, expensive vehicle which would cause the “are you really insured to drive that?” question. Because the young man knew he hadn’t committed any kind of offence at the point where the blue lights went on – he hadn’t, it was a routine stop-check – he chose not to stop because he knew he’d done nothing wrong.
Of course, failing to stop for a police officer is an offence which meant the police started the relevant processes to get him to stop. By the time this was achieved there was sea of blue flashing lights and police officers which the man struggled to handle and comprehend – he was arrested for a minor public order offence and taken to custody. The police promptly ignored his “Autism Alert Card” which indicated who should be contacted for advice and so they failed to join the dots between the card itself and the legal requirement to ensure an appropriate adult who would have then supported him in custody and presumably given the police a lot of information. Autism is a mental disorder for the purposes of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Mental Health Act 1983.
This post is continued. >>> Part 2.
The Mental Health Cop blog
– won the ConnectedCOPS ‘Top Cop’ Award for leveraging social media in policing.
– won the Digital Media Award from the UK’s leading mental health charity, Mind
– won a World of Mentalists #TWIMAward for the best in mental health blogs
– was highlighted by the Independent Commission on Policing & Mental Health
– was referenced in the UK Parliamentary debate on Policing & Mental Health
– was commended by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the UK Parliament.