Category Archives: Blog

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

Disordered, vulnerable – or autistic?

How we should treat people with neurodiverse conditions in police custody

by John Nelson
Chair | National Police Autism Association

Back in October 2017, the government launched a consultation on the Codes of Practice relating to detaining people in police custody in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), the wide-ranging piece of legislation that governs the fundamental powers and procedures under which the police service operates. The consultation was of particular interest to the NPAA and the autistic community as it included an update to the rules in PACE Code C concerning when a detainee would be provided an appropriate adult (AA), and how autism fitted in with PACE as a condition that might require an AA.

Before we look into the changes made following the consultation, a few words about appropriate adults. When a person is booked into police custody, they are entitled under certain circumstances to be accompanied and represented by another person of adult age. These circumstances are based on vulnerability, most commonly due to age – PACE states that all juvenile detainees (i.e. under the age of 18*) must have an AA in custody. The AA’s role is to facilitate communication with the detainee and ensure that their best interests are represented; they do not have to remain with the detainee during their entire stay in custody, however the AA must be present at certain key times, including the detainee being read their legal rights after being booked in, during a strip search (usually required if the detainee is believed to be concealing drugs), and when the detainee is interviewed. An AA is usually a parent or carer for a child detainee, or a friend or other family member not connected with the matter being investigated – they may also be a social work professional or a trained volunteer.

Prior to July 2018 when the revised Codes of Practice took effect, PACE Code C referred to detainees who were ‘mentally disordered’ or otherwise ‘mentally vulnerable’ as requiring an AA. The term ‘mental disorder’ seems like a throwback to a less enlightened age, and it’s a reflection of how far our understanding of mental illness and neurological conditions has come in the last 30 years that it now seems so archaic and out of place. But language aside, the obvious problem with these terms is how they accommodate neurodiverse conditions such as autism.

Most autistic people would rightly feel that a condition which is part of their identity is not a mental disorder, and would probably hesitate to describe themselves as ‘mentally vulnerable’. And yet, there are sound practical reasons why an autistic person of any standing in life would need an AA in police custody. No matter how intelligent, independent or successful an autistic individual may be, or how well-trained the officers dealing with them, the difficulties with social communication inherent in the condition may lead to a detainee missing the nuance of a question, or feeling obliged to make disclosures which could have far-reaching consequences. For this reason, the NPAA’s position is that all autistic people brought into police custody should be routinely offered an AA.

Following representations made by stakeholders and members of public, the revised Codes of Practice introduced a new description of ‘vulnerable’, linking into the Mental Health Act which in turn lists conditions including autism which may cause a person to require support in a custody setting. Although the term ‘mental disorder’ still exists within the PACE Code C to distinguish from mental health conditions, the new Codes of Practice acknowledge that there are many reasons outside of diagnosed conditions or illnesses that may require a person in custody to have an AA – for example:

  • The behaviour of the detainee
  • The mental health and capacity of the detainee
  • What the detainee says about themselves
  • Information from relatives and friends of the detainee
  • Information from police officers and staff and from police records
  • Information from health and social care, including liaison and diversion services, and other professionals who know or have had previous contact with the individual

Ultimately the decision on whether to provide an AA for a detainee lies with the custody sergeant, and this is where autism-specific training as advocated by the NPAA can help our colleagues to make the right decision every time. The good news is that in addition to providing training to custody staff, several Forces such as Avon & Somerset Police now explicitly ask detainees whether they are on the autism spectrum as part of the booking-in process. These measures will help to ensure that all autistic people held in police custody are treated fairly and given the support they need. ∎

*The requirement for an appropriate adult for juvenile detainees formerly applied to children below the age of 17 – this was raised to 18 in 2013

A question of specifics

Should police officers be provided with condition-specific training in autism? NPAA Head of Policy Adam O’Loughlin considers the arguments for and against

One of things the NPAA is regularly challenged on is why autism should benefit from condition-specific training to frontline police officers. With that in mind a few weeks ago, a lady called Paula McGowan launched a petition online asking for a Parliamentary debate to discuss the merits of providing all police officers with mandatory training on autism and learning difficulties. This follows on from her successful campaign aimed at ensuring that all NHS staff receive training on the same conditions, prompted by the loss of her son Oliver at Southmead Hospital in Bristol.

Reaction to being asked to provide condition-specific training is met by The College of Policing with resistance, and the reasons for this are well-thought-out and well-argued. They tend to go along these lines:

  1. Police officers are not medical professionals
  2. There are so many conditions that police officers ‘need’ to know about that if we trained all our staff to the levels advocates want, we’d spend all our time training and none of our time doing police work
  3. It’s doesn’t actually matter what condition a person has – just do a balanced combination of what the public want and what the officers say they need, in context to ensure people’s safety and fundamental rights

These are all perfectly reasonable, and therefore it stands to reason that we need to have some robust arguments as to why we are doing it. I think it’s worth starting with some clarity about what autism is, and more importantly, what it isn’t. The reason is that autism means different things to different people.

First things first, then: autism is NOT a mental health condition. It is generally accepted that autism is a neurodevelopmental condition. Following on from that some autistic people view themselves as being disabled, others view themselves as simply having a differently wired brain. Many more have comorbid conditions such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, as well as mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety – which isn’t that much of a surprise considering many autistic people suffer from significant amounts of social exclusion. What almost all autistic people have in common however is that we don’t refer to ourselves as mentally disordered. And this is ironic, as legally at least that’s exactly what we are. It states it in the Mental Health Act. What that means in practice is that it is possible for someone on the autistic spectrum to meet the criteria in the Act for detention, even if the autism is not associated with abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible behaviour. Now that’s scary enough, but what it also means is that given the powers and responsibilities police officers are conferred with, we absolutely have to be aware of this. And right now most police officers aren’t.

What of the next point, that autism is just one of a number of conditions that interested parties advocate for? It’s a perfectly reasonable perspective. And in order to answer it, it’s helpful to consider whether there are other professional bodies or pieces of legislation that treat autism as a special case. As it happens there are, and ironically one of those is the Mental Health Act. Glance at the table of contents of the Codes of Practice and you’ll see that autism has its own chapter, under the heading “additional considerations for specific patients”. So clearly Mental Health legislators considered that autism was deserving of special consideration.

If that wasn’t enough, then there’s also the fact that autism is the only condition to have its own Act of Parliament; the Autism Act. The first reaction we normally get when we mention it is that many people are surprised that it exists at all. But in this case the facts are quite clear: The Act remains the first and so far the only condition-specific legislation of its type in England. This demonstrates the importance Parliament has attached to ensuring that the needs of people with autism are met. If Parliament consider autism to be important enough to warrant its own legislation, then surely it follows that policing should follow suit by treating it with similar seriousness. Here’s what the Act says about training:

“We recommend that other providers of public services, such as providers of services to support people into employment, police, probation and the criminal justice system look to follow the guidance to help improve the delivery of the services they provide to adults with autism: for example ensuring that staff who provide services to adults with autism have received autism awareness training would clearly be of value across all public services.”

And that’s not all. There’s also this:

“When people with autism come into contact with the criminal justice system it is often up to them, or their carer, to explain what having autism means. In some cases, it can positively change the way that police or courts view a situation. Police, probation services, courts and prisons should be supported so that they are aware of the communication challenges experienced by people with autism. NHS bodies, Foundation Trusts and local authorities should work with the criminal justice system to achieve this.”

And finally, this:

“Local Authorities, NHS bodies and NHS Foundation Trusts should seek to engage with local police forces, criminal justice agencies and prisons to the training on autism that is available in the local area and consider undertaking some joint training with police forces and criminal justice services working with people with autism.”

Moving on again, it’s not just Parliament, and it’s not just recommendations. As part of the Autism Strategy, each Local Authority is required by Public Health England to complete a bi-annual Self-Assessment Return (SAF) to demonstrate compliance with the Act. And it will come as no surprise to learn that there is a specific question about the very topic currently up for discussion. It’s actually question 23, and it looks like this:

Criminal justice services: Do staff in the local police service engage in autism awareness training?

Any police forces out there fancy replying: “No, because the College of Policing don’t think it’s a good idea?” No, us neither.

So we think it’s safe to say that the mandate is there. In fact, we don’t think it could be much clearer. The Mental Health Act treats autism as a special case, there’s a specific Act of Parliament that recommends that police forces should engage with partners to undertake training, and a mandatory self-assessment to inform the Department of Health as to progress.

That’s the why, and we think the case is made. ∎

Follow Adam O’Loughlin on Twitter at @autisticcop