autism and criminal justice system

NAS now provides an autism training package for the police. I wonder what this involves.

The NAS website covers Criminal Justice with a Position Statement and some links. The Position Statement mentions stress and meltdown in unfamiliar environments, vulnerability to others taking advantage, and having difficulty following procedures.

Encounters with the Criminal Justice System must be crucial for parents, as so many issues could arise. Tony Attwood looks at this quite effectively in his complete guide to asperger's syndrome (pages 334-240). He includes some individuals being manipulative and experimenting with social situations or other people's reactions out of obsessive curiosity who could get themselves into trouble with the law. Special interests can lead to problems, like an excessive interest in cars drawing police attention, and confused sexuality can get them into trouble. Computer obsessions have led to hacking.

There have been instances of arson, stemming from experimentation, or injury done to others out of fear of bullies. And of course there is the iossue of being let astray trying to gain approval from unsuitable others. There are a lot of possibilities. So good advice on the criminal justice system and the police is invaluable.

The NAS website lists over a hundred solictors around the country, but less than 20% specifically mention autism, and only three of these are in London, some in small provincial centres. Most refer to learning disability, special education needs or mental health. Surely there is more legal knowledge specific to autism.

The website has a link to the Toolkit 3 from The Advocate's Gateway, a resource for courts about autism produced by Lexicon in 2013. There is a lot of useful information here, but the examples are worrying. I don't think it helps as much as it should.

Section 2 covers areas of difficulty, very much led by the triad. The example of rigid behaviour is an adult witness with autism who was permitted to give evidence wearing a lion's tail, which was his 'comfort object' in daily life. I've tried to find out what court case, but it is just an example in similar law papers, without source. What image of autism does this create?

On sensory sensitivity: "smells (even something as 'minor' as flavoured crisps) or colours, fabrics or materials (eg a different kind of chair might be needed). "Taking a short break to allow the person to calm down may save time in the long run".

I can see what they are trying to explain, but they do seem to have somewhat misunderstood the issues, or else their rather prurient illustrations suggest they are not really taking autism seriously. Are their lordships really getting the right kind of information?

The whole state of affairs over the criminal justice system is worrying. So I do hope these training courses are up to the mark.

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  • I've recently had the opportunity to visit a number of police stations to assess disability access and other disability related issues. The stations were within one authority so I don't know how representative they are. I saw mainly police stations but also one large custody suite. My TV police/detective image of grim smelly spartan interrogation rooms was rather out of date. My only concerns were that strip lighting prevails, which does have flicker issues, space in rooms is a bit cramped, and the colour scheme wasn't easy on the eyes. But a lot has clearly improved.

    The Economic and Social Research Council gave the results of a study on police interviewing of individuals on the spectrum last October, involving input from 400 front line and investigative officers. They reported difficulty getting a rapport with people on the spectrum and difficulty getting the right environment. However the researchers referred to bright or flickering lights and strange smells.

    West Midlands Police have produced guidelines on intervew and interrogation of people with autism (including asperger syndrome), written by Dennis Debbaudt. This looks broadly reassuring, and shows a good level of understanding. There are problems in the detail, but the document is vastly better than the Advocates' Toolkit 3.

    They do seem to have grasped the issues of false confessions or testimonies, either from trickery used to get a confession being more fortcoming from someone on the spectrum, and interviewees having good memory but maybe remembering things said to them during interview that are then repeated as fact (contrast that with the advocates' toolkit going on about poor memory). Friendly/unfriendly techniques (good cop bad cop) may also confuse because lack of social skills may confuse the interviewee with autism. Also people with autism may be more inclined to be truthful so techniques trying to expose lying may be inappropriate.

    I'm not saying I agree entirely with the deductions. But if West Midlands police are representative of wider national understanding, they seem to be making an effort. Compare that to the Advocates Toolkit which lives up to the notion of the law as an ass - how can the judiciary get things so wrong?

    The West Midlands Police have some notion of the eye contact issue, though it needs tweaking: "They may provide no eye contact at all, even when a questioner shifts their position to obtain it. The person may have been taught to give eye contact but this may be perceivved as insincere, glaring, or fixated. The interviewer may mistake this unusual eye contact as a tension-relieving technigue used by a guilty person, when it is nothing more than a symptom of the condition of autism".

    OK I could recommend some refinement, but West Midlands Police seem to have taken eye contact on board. Compare that to the advocates' toolkit which only says "The person may not sustain eye contact (or stare inappropriately)". I seem to be finding more comfort in the police understanding than the Judiciary. But people on the spectrum may have to deal with both, and for a profession that charges so much for its services, the lawyers need to get their act together fast.

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