University of Nottingham research on Autism and police custody

The University of Nottingham has conducted new Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded research which will help improve the support of autistic individuals in police custody through changes to practice and policy. The research was led by Dr Chloe Holloway, and its  aim was to bring together academics, autistic individuals and police officers to explore best practices for supporting neurodiversity in police custody.

Autism Spectrum Conditions can be defined as a group of lifelong neurodevelopmental conditions associated with differences in the way individuals engage in social communication and social interaction and make sense of the world and process sensory information. Neurodiversity can be explained as an approach to understanding and accepting neurological differences as a different way of being human. These differences can include individuals with a spectrum of conditions such as Autism, ADHD, Depression, Dyslexia and Anxiety.

Police custody plays a key part in identifying and responding to the individuals with diverse communication and sensory needs in the criminal justice system. However, recent research has shown that autistic individuals in particular may have negative experiences in police custody resulting in significant personal and legal outcomes. This is partially attributable to police forces having insufficient access to quality training on Autism and practical barriers created by the custody process and custody environment. While these barriers exist, the ability of police forces to effectively fulfil their legal duties will be compromised and autistic individuals will be continually at risk of adverse outcomes.

The research was showcased at an event about research on autism and police custody in May 2019, to further explore how to influence policy and practice. To help with that Chief Constable Janette McCormick, former Chief Constable of Cheshire and now Deputy Director of the College of Policing, was keen to identify ways of integrating findings into practice and training.

Dr Holloway’s Ph.D thesis examined the difficulties that might be experienced by autistic individuals in police custody and the support they may require to enable them to participate in the police custody process effectively. In particular, she considered whether the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provided sufficient safeguards for Autistic individuals in police custody and whether it was consistent with wider legal obligations outlined by the Equality Act 2010 and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She is currently working with academics from Nottingham and other institutions, autistic individuals and police officers to co-produce training materials for custody staff to help them better support Autistic individuals in police custody.

Previous research has suggested that autistic individuals may have negative experiences in police custody (see Beardon & Edmonds, 2008; Crane et al., 2016) and current safeguards under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 designed to safeguard their rights and wellbeing may not be effective (see Dehaghani, 2017; HMIC, 2015). The new research is one of the first in-depth studies into the experiences of autistic individuals in police custody and emphasises the difficulties they may experience in this setting and the need for appropriate support. The research used data from internet surveys, semi-structured interviews and participative walkthroughs.

Negative experience in custody may be attributed to a mixture of things. Firstly, confusion about what is happening due to difficulties with communication and a lack of accessible information. Then is the possibility of heightened anxiety due to sensory demands of the custody environment and finally a potential desire to escape police custody which affects their ability to participate in the custody process.

Taken together these factors highlight the need for changes to police practice, improved Autism training, adjustments to the custody environment and wider policy reform in order to ensure that autistic individuals receive appropriate support. Change was identified across the areas of police training, the custody environment itself and in policy. For training, new resources are being developed including toolkit resources. Key points here include access to appropriately trained appropriate adults – policing professionals can’t take it for granted that such a service will send along workers who are well informed about autism unfortunately. It’s important also to avoid technical language and ask really clear and specific questions, as individuals with autism can interpret questions quite literally. For example, asking someone where they live is not quite the same as asking for someone’s full current home address.

This same issue over questioning can start right at the outset in custody when a detainee may not disclose they have autism, and for then on matters can decline even further based on misunderstandings on both sides.  Some forces encourage the use of extra questions upon detention, in addition to the existing regular ones dictated by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to establish if autism is a factor. Research also indicates in such cases, detainees may acquiesce more and go along with things so as not to cause conflict and get released earlier to escape the stress and anxiety of the environment.

The issue of questioning was also explored during the research event in May, particularly explaining the significance on cognitive interviewing approaches. Here, Dr Katie Maras, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Deputy Director (Public Engagement) for the Centre for Applied Autism Research (CAAR) of the University of Bath, explained how the established best practice of using non-leading ‘report all’ free recall questions to gain a full account, which is then probed, might be confusing to an individual with autism. This is because of that tendency to interpret things quite literally: where a ‘tell me everything’ approach might not work well and cause the interviewer to think the interviewee is being uncooperative.

For the custody environment, changes can make a big difference but it can be very difficult to amend existing buildings and their layout. Inspector Duncan Collins of Nottinghamshire Police has been able to use the findings in a very timely fashion to inform the new Nottingham Suite. Here, changes to lighting and sound are more appropriate to a person with autism’s sensitivity towards sensory inputs, such as loud or high-pitched noises; there’s even a separate and quieter entrance to the Suite for use where appropriate by various groups, including the blind, deaf, people with mobility issues and those with invisible disabilities such as Autism. There are also specialist care facilities  and cells that allow for detainees to be booked in and dealt with outside of the main custody system, as well as consideration of lighting, communication and cell design.

Sergeant Adam O’Loughlin, of Avon & Somerset, was himself diagnosed with autism and is now Head of Policy for the National Police Autism Association. Sergeant O’Loughlin explained, “there are pockets of good practice but we need more of a consistent approach in policing across the country. Because we’re talking here about an invisible disability, it can so easily get missed in a busy custody suite, and that can make such a difference to a person’s life, whether as suspect or witness.”

So what?

EMPAC asked Dr Holloway what difference she hoped the research would make

Dr Holloway, “The research has reinforced there is an evidenced need for change, and the research also offers a clearer map of where to go next and how to get there. We’re currently working with autistic individuals and police professionals for co-produce further training materials for custody staff. My motivation to do this research was that there was a gap in knowledge and understanding that was adversely – and unnecessarily – affecting people in contact with the criminal justice system. It’s been great to enable the voices to be listened to more that were being missed. This research will help the community and the criminal justice agencies, like the police to get better consistent outcomes.”

To find out more go to: –

The National Police Autism Association also provides information and hosts a forum for autistic individuals, police officers and researchers to discuss issues relating to Autism and Policing. You can find out more at: http://www.npaa.org.uk/.

Autism Injustice also highlights the experiences and stories of autistic individuals and their families who have experience of being in contact with the criminal justice system. You can find out more at: https://autisminjustice.org/.

APPGA – https://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/campaign/appga.aspx

NAS – https://www.autism.org.uk/

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