Category Archives: Blog

Positive for you, negative for me

by John Nelson
Chair, National Police Autism Association

I recently saw a tweet from the Bluelight Consultancy – a company specialising in seminars to prepare candidates for police recruitment and internal selection processes – which made me sit up and take notice. Bluelight was advising its non-BME (black and minority ethnic) potential officer customers to declare their ethnicity as “White Other” on their applications in order to gain access to BME-only ‘Positive Action’ workshops offered by some police forces, as part of a drive to get more BME officers into the police service. In the opinion of Bluelight, these workshops provided a significant (and unfair) advantage over other candidates:

Setting aside the moral question of encouraging candidates to lie on their application (or at least to consider the implications of how they fill in the diversity questionnaire), this was surprising to see, as Positive Action is intended to help people overcome disadvantages to help them into work or to progress their career. And yet here was a recruitment consultancy acknowledging that people from one particular protected characteristic were being given an advantage over everyone else to help them to pass, and encouraging all their paying customers to ‘game the system’ to be in with a fair chance of success. What’s going on?

First, a quick definition from the Citizens Advice website: Positive Action is an employer “taking steps to help or encourage certain groups of people with different needs, or who are disadvantaged in some way, access work or training.” PA is established in law – the Equality Act 2010, to be exact – and is linked to protected characteristics, also referred to in policing parlance as ‘strands of diversity’. The Equality Act sets down nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, gender, and sexual orientation. PA is there to assist anyone from these groups who, for whatever reason, are disadvantaged due to that characteristic. A simple example of PA  is an employer providing ramps, lifts and accessible toilet facilities to make it possible for a wheelchair user to work in their premises.

Positive Action can also be used to encourage members of a particular protected characteristic group into employment or specialist posts, where the levels of participation by that group are low. A typical example here is a police force running recruitment open days specifically for female officers interested in  becoming firearms officers. Firearms in policing has traditionally been seen as a ‘male thing’, which in itself might be enough to stop capable female officers from applying. So, in an effort to redress the balance, a police force might make an extra effort to encourage females to put in an application. The crucial thing here is that once they have applied, female candidates are treated equally – they are expected to meet the same assessment standards as everyone else.

But what if efforts to tempt female officers to sign on the dotted line weren’t working? How about if we were to run some recruitment processes just for female candidates, in order to boost the numbers up and redress the balance? This is an example of Positive Discrimination – treating one group of people favourably over another in order to achieve recruitment quotas. Positive Discrimination is illegal in most circumstances under the Equality Act – and rightly so in my opinion – because, all other factors being equal, advantage and disadvantage is a zero-sum game. Treat me favourably, and it puts you at a disadvantage. If a suitably-qualified male officer wanted to apply for the firearms recruitment process being run this year, they’d be excluded, purely on the grounds that they were male. All we’ve done is to replace one form of discrimination with another – two wrongs don’t make a right.

So that is the fundamental difference between Positive Action, which is legal, and Positive Discrimination, which is not – doing what we can to encourage particular groups to participate, rather than giving them an overt advantage over others, and removing barriers. This isn’t to say that employees or potential employees can never be treated favourably as part of PA – in the rare event of a ‘tiebreak’ situation in which two candidates score the same in a selection process, under PA the candidate from a protected characteristic can be given the job if their characteristic is under-represented in their chosen role. The EA also allows disabled staff to be treated favourably – for example, being given ‘first dibs’ on a role that accommodates their disability, due to the particular challenges a disabled person faces in getting into, and staying in, employment. But the spirit of PA is about doing what we can to encourage minority groups to participate, and ensuring they’re not disadvantaged when they do so.

Unfortunately, ‘encouraging participation’ and ‘removing disadvantages’ are flexible concepts, and this is where things start to get messy. To go back to our example of firearms recruitment – knowing that the recruitment process includes a tough fitness test, what if we included some fitness tips in our female-only workshop? Nothing wrong with that – the test is designed to be equally passable by women as well as men, everyone still has to pass on their own merit, and we wouldn’t be telling our female candidates anything that a male candidate couldn’t find out for themselves. But what if we were to offer our female candidates a couple of months of one-to-one fitness training with a personal trainer, at the Force’s expense? What if we tailored that training to the particular demands of the test? What if went even further and offered female candidates tuition on passing the written tests – giving them sight of previous test papers, telling them what sort of questions are ‘likely to come up’ (the latter perhaps said with a knowing wink). Is this still PA? How would this make male candidates feel, and those from other under-represented groups who might not be getting the same ‘support’?

Employment lawyers might argue the point – and any such process would no doubt have been given a once-over to ensure that it stays on the right side of the law – but, is it still fair? Does it stay within the spirit of PA? This is the situation that some police forces have got into with BME recruitment, and to which Bluelight has raised concerns. Given that BME candidates are no less capable than anyone else, is it really fair to offer someone a workshop tailored to passing a recruitment process, based on their ethnicity? Knowing that not many BME candidates are likely to apply despite our best efforts, is it fair to do everything we can to ensure that they all pass, short of giving them the answers in advance? What about other protected characteristics, which are also under-represented in the police service compared to the general population (extremely so, in the case of disability) – what are we doing for them?

These concerns don’t only apply to the external recruitment process – some Forces also offer intensive development programmes for BME officers to prepare them for promotion, including confidence-building exercises, coursework, mentoring and networking opportunities, sometimes run over a year or longer. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? These are all fantastic things for a talented disabled or neurodivergent candidate. An officer on the autism spectrum who finds day-to-day ‘small talk’ difficult – including those all-important casual chats in the corridor with the friendly Superintendent who asks how your career is getting on – might benefit enormously from opportunities to get talking with senior people, to develop confidence and to break down superficial communication barriers. Mentoring a disabled candidate is a great way to guide them into a particular career path and to help them make the most of their skills.

And yet, these courses are BME-only. Even though the development opportunities on offer might help overcome practical difficulties associated with a disability, apply as a disabled candidate and (unless you also tick the BME box) you’ll be refused. Sorry, this isn’t for you, but you’re free to put your promotion application in – you’ll have the same chance as everyone else.

I acknowledge there’s no easy answer to overcoming the problem of under-representation. A perennial problem with justifying PA opportunities for disability is that we don’t know how many disabled employees there are, because disabled staff tend to be reluctant to disclose their disability at work; perhaps in fear – sadly justified, in my experience – that their career will suffer if they do. So nothing is done for them, and nothing changes – Catch-22. In the 25 years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the subsequent Macpherson report which infamously labelled the Metropolitan Police Service as institutionally racist, much time, effort and money has been expended on improving the ethnic diversity of the police service; and yet, we as a Service still fail to represent the diverse nature of the communities we serve, prompting Alex Marshall, former Head of the College of Policing, to call for the legalisation of Positive Discrimination to allow BME recruitment targets to be met. How do we break the cycle and ‘get diversity right’?

As a white, male officer on the autism spectrum who has encountered prejudice and discrimination throughout my career – sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious and well-intentioned – this is something I have an opinion on. The problems around BME recruitment and progression, the perceived need to favour certain groups over others to achieve the desired representation, and the considerable difficulties faced by disabled staff, all stem from the same thing: fear of difference.

At its heart, the police service is still a conservative institution that expects its officers, staff and volunteers to look, act and think in a certain way, dependent on their rank and role – a social pecking-order defined by job titles, stripes, pips and crowns. This is the culture an officer from a minority group enters, and once the supportive environment of the recruitment process melts away, they’re likely to find their personal aspects of difference count against them. Only the most determined and well-connected few can make it, and – iterated over successive promotion processes – this ensures that only a very few minority officers ever reach the top, with openly disabled and neurodivergent officers effectively being blocked completely. Well-meaning efforts to push PA beyond its ethical boundaries in recruitment and selection are a sticking plaster that cannot cure the underlying malaise.

So – how about if instead of focusing on the impossible juggling act of righting the wrongs affecting particular strands of diversity, we adopt a culture of embracing and encouraging difference, in all its forms? So you’re a fifty-something looking for a change of career, or black, or female, or gay, or autistic or dyslexic, or any or all of those? Or even something not linked to a protected characteristic – being an introvert can be tough in a profession that attracts and rewards extrovert personalities. Whatever makes you ‘you’, It doesn’t matter – we still want you, we genuinely care about the things that make you different, and we’ll give you whatever support you need to be successful, tailored to your needs. And it isn’t just about overcoming negatives – we recognise that you bring unique skills and values to the job, and we want to make the best of those. Focusing on the positives isn’t just the morally right thing to do – it makes good business sense, which is why the likes of JP Morgan are introducing programmes to recruit and develop autistic staff. If you want to know what works in business, follow the money.

It’s my belief that if we change our culture to one that truly values difference, we will gain a deeper trust from the communities we serve – and moreover, recruitment of all minority groups will naturally improve, as potential officers will see us as an organisation that values them as an individual. ∎

Respecting neurodiversity: Interactions between autistic people and public services

Dr Katie Maras is Lecturer and Dr Jade Norris is Research Associate in the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology. They are both members of the Centre for Applied Autism Research team

Two-way communication forms the bedrock of the provision of most public services and must be effective in order for all individuals to receive appropriate access to care, services, employment, and justice; services should be accessible and delivered in a way that respects the differing needs of the individual. However, society is shaped for neurotypical people and largely excludes those who think differently, despite the fact that neurologically diverse people – from those with autism to ADHD to dyslexia – constitute a significant proportion of the population. In this blog we present autism as a case study for how the critical points of interaction between individuals and public services could be better designed to respect neurodiversity, taking the criminal justice system, healthcare, and employment interviews as exemplar contexts.

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s interests, behaviours, and how they communicate and interact with those around them. It is currently estimated that around 1 in 68 people are autistic, with the recorded incidence rising sharply in recent decades. Autism impacts all areas of life and costs the UK economy at least £32bn in lost earnings, interventions, care, and support for people with the condition. A major factor in this cost is that autism is lifelong and can affect independent living and employment – despite possessing a range of valuable skills, 85% of autistic people do not work full time. Furthermore, autistic people are more likely to have interactions with the police (despite no evidence that they commit crimes at higher rates than the general population), and are more likely to have co-occurring physical and mental health issues, meaning that they are more likely to require health and social care provision.

Compounding these issues are core differences in social communication coupled with specific memory difficulties, which can make even everyday social interactions difficult and highly anxiety-provoking for autistic individuals. These difficulties are therefore particularly exacerbated in formal, ‘high stakes’ interview contexts such as police interviews, personal health consultations, and when being interviewed for a job. Performance in occupational interviews is a crucial determinant of employment prospects, yet social, cognitive, and communication difficulties mean that autistic people are often unable to perform to the best of their abilities in interviews. Differences in introspection and social communication are also likely to make relaying relevant information to healthcare providers difficult, unless these differences are appropriately supported. Our research has shown how current police interviewing models are ineffective in supporting autistic witnesses to provide ‘best evidence’ because they were developed based on neurotypical memory retrieval and communication styles.

We know, for example, that autistic people have difficulties in recalling personally experienced specific episodes from the past under ‘free recall’ conditions. However the use of open-ended and episodic-based questions is ubiquitous within healthcare, the criminal justice system, and employment interviews (for example – “Tell me what you saw yesterday”; “Tell me about the fall”; “Recall an example of when you were faced with…?”; “What would you do in X situation?”).

Social insight is also crucial in these contexts: one has to ‘read between the lines’ to determine what an interviewer wants to know, which so often isn’t explicitly stated in the question. Successful job interviewees are those who are proficient at conveying job-relevant skills and aptitudes such as being hard working, dependable, reliable, able to work independently or as part of a team, and having the relevant skills and experience for the job. For an autistic interviewee, however, inferring that this type of information is required can be difficult; interview questions may be interpreted very literally, and they may be overly honest in their answers (Q: “What is it you like about this firm?”; A: “Lunch!”).

Indeed, a job interview is often principally a test of recall and neurotypical social competence – both of which can be difficult for autistic people, making it harder for them to demonstrate the required skills for the job role in question. Similar problems are encountered in criminal justice system questions that are posed as statements which do not explicitly ask for a response or justification (“So you knew Joe wasn’t going to be there, yet you went ahead anyway”), and in healthcare consultations literal interpretation of questions can again be a major barrier. Most neurotypical people will provide relevant information that goes beyond a direct answer to a question (Q: “Have you vomited?”; A: “No… but I feel very sick”), whereas an autistic person may just provide a literal answer the question (“No”), which can lead to incomplete communication of symptoms and missed or delayed diagnoses. Indeed, rates of almost every type of physical and mental health problem are significantly raised in autism in comparison with non-autistic people, and recent evidence suggests that the way in which people are asked about their symptoms has a significant effect on diagnosis. For example, autistic people are far more likely to receive a depression diagnosis when a standardised semi-structured interview is used compared to other less formal methods.

Crucially, providing more explicit instructions regarding what is required and narrowing the parameters can effectively elicit recall of a similar level of accuracy and completeness to non-autistic individuals. Although free recall is widely accepted in both psychology and policing as the gold standard, to produce the most accurate, uncontaminated witness recall, autistic people may need more guided and focused retrieval from the outset to: (a) support their memory retrieval; (b) reduce implicit social demands regarding what is relevant for recall; and (c) minimise cognitive load and demands on ‘executive resources’ (crucial cognitive abilities that would help us to remember, plan, and monitor our answer to an interview question). To improve real-life outcomes for autistic people, the challenge lies in optimising the environment to exploit their relative strengths whilst also supporting their difficulties (for example, through reasonable adjustments such as removing lighting causing sensory issues, reduced use of open-plan working environments, etc). Accordingly, the focus of our current ESRC-funded research is to provide a systematic examination of factors that both help and hinder autistic people in reporting information in order to develop detailed guidance for how service providers can best facilitate optimal two-way communication when interacting with autistic people.

While there is an accumulating evidence base for adaptations that need to be made to support autistic people, employers and public services need to be sufficiently informed and administratively enabled to adopt these recommendations. Supporting autistic people to be economically active and appropriately engaged in service use not only improves quality of life for autistic people, and relatedly reduces unemployment rates as well as health and police spending (with better quality evidence resulting in more efficient investigations), but also brings a range of valuable but under-appreciated skills to society – from attention to detail to analytical problem solving and creative insights. Indeed, companies such as Auticon, JPMorgan, and Microsoft who have neurodiversity initiatives have reported a range of benefits as a result, from greater creativity to rises in profits. These developments are part of a broader shift from viewing neurodiversity as weakness (medical model of disability) towards differences and even strengths (social model of disability). Historically, disability was seen as a deficit in which policy solutions involved viewing the individual as a patient rather than as an active participator. The 2009 Autism Act was a landmark move from focusing on medical ‘treatment’ to enabling autistic people to enjoy ‘fulfilling lives’, reflecting more of a rights-based understanding. It is the only disability-specific legislation in the UK, introduced in recognition of the uniquely complex difficulties that arise when autistic individuals are engaged with public services. The most recent related government strategy for adults with autism in England, ‘Think Autism‘, identifies a number of priority challenges for action including making adjustments within the criminal justice system and employment, and meeting the health needs of autistic people.

Given that individual difficulties are tricky to spot, a universal approach to giving information in accessible ways (alongside the standard format) is strongly recommended, and removing barriers for autistic individuals can benefit everyone. Indeed, specific issues and differences faced by autistic people can also be experienced by non-autistic people, such as those with ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, depression, social difficulties, and sensory issues. Traditional initiatives surrounding diversity focus on categorisations of individuals into groups such as gender, ethnicity, or religious affiliation, with policy solutions that apply broad-brush interventions for categorical differences. It has been questioned, however, whether such policies effectively address diversity as a full continuum, including dimensions of diversity that are neither immediately obvious nor inherently collective – such as neurodiversity. Ultimately, the task we are faced with is to develop an enabling environment for neurodiverse populations with effective systems for all. Neurodiversity is a strength – it provides new insight and unique skill sets in employment, which together with improving access to healthcare and justice make a powerful economic case for creating more inclusive policies around communication. ∎


This blog was originally published on the University of Bath website – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the authors

The Lost Boys of the Criminal Justice System

This blog originally appeared as a Twitter thread by Mary Aspinall-Miles, a barrister at 12CP. We have reproduced here with the author’s kind permission. Some edits have been made for typos and readability – a link to the original thread is provided at the end of the article.

So let me tell you a story about the Lost Boys of the Criminal Justice System. There are girls too but they are even harder to see because of – well – everyday sexism in the diagnosis of autism.

Autism Awareness Month is meaningless unless we actually start to accept and understand autistics as they are.

(Warning: I apologise in advance if I use inadvertently ableist language or non first person autistic terms. I am not autistic but I try and fail.)

Let me choose Peter as my generic example. He’s no more real than the original Lost Boy, Peter Pan, but just as lost.

Peter is now 19. And when I first meet him, he looks so young and small even in the tiny cell at court. But his solicitors have already sent me his life story.

That’s because they have been representing him since he was 12. It was his kindly solicitor – let’s call her Wendy – who spots that something isn’t ‘right’. She has seen him fidget and stare into space oblivious to the apparent havoc he has wrought. So she gets a report.

Why not his parents, you ask? Well they tried and tried when he was in primary school, but the teachers just said he was naughty. They begged for a referral but were told again and again, “He’ll grow out of it.” At best they get a vague mention of ADHD.

Eventually, after a bit of wrangling with the legal aid people, Wendy gets Dr Bhatt, a psychiatrist to see Peter. Dr B writes her report – the ‘A word’ is mentioned. But that is it. Peter gets little to no support. The school may try to help, but they can’t as SEN budgets are gone.

Peter hits puberty. A hotbed of zits, bum fluff over the top lip and terrible hair. And, [whispers] sexy time. But Peter still likes Minecraft and Pokemon. He sleeps with his teddy at night because Ted never lets him down.

He is desperate to be like the other kids. To fit in. His mum has bought him a mobile phone. Uh oh. Can you tell where this is going?

The other kids are sharing pics of nudie ladies. They show him. A switch goes ping. He wants to find some too.

Peter, with that searing intensity of some autistics, trawls the internet to look. He falls down the rabbit hole. Because social skills and sexuality aren’t his strong point, he doesn’t understand the rules – he looks at images of girls his own age. Then he files them.

He shows them to some ‘lads’ at school as he wants to impress, and is instead met with utter horror. One tells a teacher, then they go home and their parents call the police because they don’t want their precious children exposed to that by that weirdo.

The police take Peter’s phone – he is interviewed and doesn’t get why he is in such trouble, they are just images he has collected. They aren’t real. You can’t touch them. The police see this as calculating and manipulative.

Of course he has horrible images and gets charged. His parents decide to wash their hands of him. And place him into local authority care voluntarily. They cannot cope.

Peter is ripped away from his home. The only people he loves and who understand him. What message is Peter hearing, do we think?

“We are rejecting you, you are defective. We do not love you enough. We are giving up on you.”

(That is a paraphrase/mashup of what I have actually been told by the Peters I have represented.)

His social worker, Jack, tries really hard but they funding runs out or Peter acts up. It never ceases to disappoint how many say they understand autism until they deal with a person in real life who won’t comply/conform to their rules. They never get that autism can affect social skills.

So Peter becomes a piece of luggage passed from one foster carer to a home, to another foster carer to a specialist placement, ad nauseam until he gets kicked out because he is ‘defiant and aggressive’. It never occurs to anyone that Peter needs order and rules.

He becomes increasingly detached because there is no one certain place or person. But he knows that when he is on the internet, all is OK and safe. Maybe if he could look at some girls… Yes this is where we go. He is arrested and pleads guilty. He is now a Registered Sex Offender.

Now virtually nowhere will have him to stay, and worse still his Sexual Harm Prevention Order – which he doesn’t really understand – says he has to tell everyone what he has been convicted of. It’s hard enough to be autistic and negotiate the world, but this too…

Peter has no qualifications. His social worker is desperate to find him somewhere, but can’t. Probation want to give him support via a community order, but can’t as he has nowhere to live. He is homeless. The magistrates remand him into custody. He has no money, no job, nowhere to live and no family.

He will have to present himself at the housing office at the local authority to get a room in a bedsit. The boy who is now 19 and still sleeps with Ted.

Do we think he will, or will he end up homeless? It’s estimated that 25% of rough sleepers may be on the autism spectrum.

And then what? Ah yes, Jay wanders into his life and tells him if he smokes this cigarette, all his pain will go away. It does. It so does. But heroin will do that for you. And now Peter falls down a deeper, darker rabbit hole. And then he turns 21, and guess what?

Peter is now all alone in the world. Lost and falling fast. In and out of magistrates’ court he goes. The police and magistrates are disdainful of him because – and here is the irony – he is seemingly articulate and intelligent. Wendy still represents him at court, and she knows he doesn’t understand.

I represent him because Wendy knows I try to understand this defiant, difficult and angry young man. Mainly it’s because I’ve heard this:

“No-one listens to me. They say they do but they don’t. I find the world confusing. No one helps me to learn to understand – will you?”

Then I usually hear the words that break my heart. The ones that make my tears come in the ladies’ loo at court.

“I miss my Mum.”

There is no end to this story. We need to fund support and help for austism at the earliest stage.

But most of all, we need to listen. ∎