Square pegs, round holes

The following blog has been written for us as part of World Autism Awareness Week by a member of our coordinator team

A phrase parents of autistic children often hear is that the education system doesn’t always work for those on the autistic spectrum. It’s like pushing a square peg into a round hole: pushing a young person in a particular way to conform with what is expected, to learn in a particular way, rather than look at how an individual can thrive, even if it means doing things differently by means of a reasonable adjustment.

One thing which needs to be kept in mind – and I feel it’s something that can be lost sight of – is that autistic kids grow into adults and these issues don’t go away, especially in the world of work.

You don’t grow out of autism
You don’t reach the age of 21 and suddenly lose autistic traits. Many autistic people find they need to ‘mask’ or ‘camouflage’ their autistic traits to ‘fit in’. This can impact massively on individuals and can lead to issues relating to their mental health, resulting in burnout and/or breakdowns. This is something everyone needs to understand, be aware of, and learn how autistic colleagues can be supported. Autistic people may think, behave and act in different ways from non-autistic colleagues (neurotypical, NT) and employers need to accept this. Each autistic person is an individual. The difficulty is that recruiters often look for people similar to themselves, which may make it more difficult for autistic people to get into the workplace.

For those autistic people who do find work, they may not feel comfortable in sharing their diagnosis through fear of being treated unfavourably. They may feel different to colleagues and find communication a struggle, as the world can be full of unwritten rules which they may feel they never received the briefing note.

Line managers and colleagues have an important role to play in ensuring colleagues are able to perform their role to the best of their abilities, so be supportive. If a colleague has told you they find sitting in a particular location is difficult then work out what the problem may be and see if a solution can be found. For example, if a ticking clock is highly distracting to that individual then can it be replaced with a battery operated digital one?

Workplace adjustments need to fair to the individual and look at their particular set of circumstances. If you were a parent and one of your children wanted a games console for Christmas and the other wanted a mobile phone, would you buy both of them a phone? Look at the needs of the individual, not what’s easiest for you.

Some people need to have a clear distinction between work and home
Not everyone is comfortable in large social gatherings, so don’t be offended or upset if you have colleagues who don’t go to pubs or restaurants after work.

Don’t make people feel uncomfortable for not ‘joining in’. Respect those who don’t participate in Christmas jumper day and definitely don’t send emails to those who don’t get involved saying they are spoiling it for others.

Remember, not everyone would want to go abseiling! So why should people be made to feel they have to join in an activity which can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety? Just because it’s an activity you enjoy, not everyone else will.


For further reading, see the Business Disability Forum’s report on autism in the workplace, Square Holes for Square Pegs

NPAA holds ‘world first’ Neurodiversity in Policing conference

Police officers, staff, support professionals and volunteers came together on the 12th March to attend a pioneering conference on neurodiversity in policing. The event, believed to be the first of its kind promoting cognitive diversity within the police service, was jointly organised by the National Police Autism Association and Devon & Cornwall Police, which funded and hosted the event at its HQ in Exeter, Devon.

Chris Packham

The event featured guest speakers including naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, who spoke movingly about his experiences as an undiagnosed autistic teenager, and Dr Luke Beardon, Senior Lecturer in autism at Sheffield Hallam University. Delegates also took part in workshops on managing and supporting neurodivergent staff in the workplace, and supporting officers and staff with caring responsibilities.

NPAA founder and chair John Nelson, an officer with British Transport Police, opened the conference. Mr Nelson said: “Back in 2015 when the NPAA launched, neurodiversity was still a bleeding-edge concept in the private sector, and had barely been heard of in the police service. I could never have guessed that nearly five years later, this event would have been possible, or that neurodiversity would have made the impact it already has on the way we as a service approach diversity.”

Dr Luke Beardon

In another ‘first’, it was announced that Alexis Poole, Assistant Chief Officer (People) with Devon & Cornwall Police had been appointed Neurodiversity Lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the professional body for chief officers. Mr Nelson commented: “This is a fantastic step forward in recognising and embracing a new concept of difference within the police service, and I for one am excited about where this journey will take us.”

The conference was attended by over 150 delegates, including senior officers and HR staff from police forces across the UK. The NPAA hopes to plan a follow-up event in 2021.

Click on the link for a selection of tweets from the conference. More information, including slides and video from the day, is available on the NPAA’s Police Neurodiversity Forum – details on how to register can be found on the Membership page. ∎

University of Nottingham launches Autism Custody Toolkit

New guides and resources will assist police custody staff dealing with autistic detainees

The University of Nottingham has worked with the police service, support staff and autistic volunteers to create a toolkit to help police custody staff deal with detainees affected by autism, and other conditions that affect sensory processing and communication.

The toolkit was launched on the 10th January at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham. The event was attended by NPAA representatives, and staff and volunteers involved in the project.

Dr Chloe Holloway, from the University of Nottingham’s School of Law, led the research. She said people with autism can find the custody environment so stressful that they may waive their legal rights to a lawyer or sign an admission of guilt to get out. 

Dr Chloe Holloway introducing the new police custody training video, shown at the launch event

Dr Holloway added: “My in-depth interviews with autistic people who had been taken into police custody found they were confused about what was happening to them during their arrest due to difficulties with communication and a lack of accessible information.

“The conditions of the custody suite – bright lights and loud noise – also made them very anxious. 

“The materials developed for the toolkit are based on my findings and they have been designed to meet the priorities of both staff and those in detention.”

A new training video for police custody staff, featuring autistic actors, was shown at the launch. The video and toolkit will be made available to police forces across the UK.

As part of the project, cells designed for autistic prisoners will be built at a new £17 million police custody suite in Radford Road, Nottingham – the first of its kind in the country. The new facility is due to open by Christmas 2020.

The NPAA would like to thank Dr Holloway, The University of Nottingham and the Nottingham Autism Police Partnership for including us in this project. ∎