Category Archives: Blog

“The little things are the BIG things” – a parent’s view

The following blogs have been written for us as part of World Autism Awareness Week by two members of our coordinator team who have children on the autism spectrum. Names have been changed to protect the identity of family members.

Liz, Business Development Analyst and NPAA Lead Coordinator

When my son was born there were a lot of myths surrounding autism. One myth was that autism is caused by vaccines. My son, now aged 13 was vaccinated during a media climate of TV news reports which concentrated on showing clips of children not communicating, parents convinced that the MMR vaccine was responsible for their child having autism. The research surround this has now been found to be flawed and although scientists don’t fully understand what causes autism, it is thought to be genetic.

Our son received an autism diagnosis in 2011. As a baby he spoke and had a good command of language, but things like haircuts and changing routine could present a problem. It wasn’t until he was at school, when a teacher suggested we get a referral to the child development clinic that we became aware our son may be on the autism spectrum. It took two years of form filling, assessments and appointments to establish that he was autistic. Upon receiving this news I felt relief. I also experienced grief. What would the future hold for my son? Would he reach the same milestones as his older neurotypical brother? But I was also relieved. Relieved, that my child was autistic, not naughty. His behaviour, which could be perceived as stubborn or obstructive was sometimes due to finding the world overwhelming, and he was unable to express this in words.

Having a name for his behaviour – autism – meant I could focus my attention to learning what may help him in difficult situations. Having this information has enabled me to understand why certain situations can cause anxiety, and having more of the understanding of the condition has benefited us a family. We may have to prepare my son for a new situation so he has an understanding of what to expect. Avoiding queuing is something which makes a family day out much less stressful.

Having an autistic child can have its challenges, but I wouldn’t change my son. Autism is part of him. This is why promoting autism awareness is important to me. I’ve learned so much by having a child on the spectrum and I want to change attitudes and perceptions about the condition. I want to ensure those negative images of autism are challenged. I want my son, his peers and the 700,000 people in the UK known to have the condition to live in a world of understanding and acceptance.

Not every autistic person has a savant skill (someone with significant mental abilities far in excess of average). The skills at which savants excel are generally related to memory; similar to the character in the film Rain Man). Indeed, if my son did have an aptitude for understanding the sequencing of gaming machines I would have long since retired! Autism is unique. It’s a spectrum condition, not a line or scale.

Like any parent I have concern about my child’s future, but I worry about some things you may never have considered if you are a parent.

Will my child be able to make his own way to and from secondary school independently?

Will he ever stop wearing gloves during the month of August?

What will happen if they stop making the only brand of toothpaste he will use?

What would happen if my son needed the help of the police?

Would he be able to communicate effectively?

Would my child become a victim of crime as a direct result of his difference? Autistic people are more likely to be victims and witnesses of crime than offenders.

Will he get a job? Only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment, and only 32% are in some kind of paid work.

Will my son ever be able to answer a question without answering “I don’t know”.

Would a police officer be able to help him if he became distressed? (My son refuses to speak when things are difficult, because he’s processing information and may not know what words to use).

Will people always assume my son is rude if he does not give eye contact when being spoken to?

Do police officers have enough understanding of neurodiverse conditions? Neurodiversity is the concept where neurological differences are to be recognised and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labelled with dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, Tourettes and others.

My interest in promoting autism awareness had led me to becoming my Force single point of contact for autism, and our Force lead contact for the National Police Autism Association.

Jon, Business Development Analyst and NPAA Deputy Coordinator

My son Peter, while not as outgoing as many of his peers, looks like and – trust me, speaks like your neurotypical teenager! However Peter was diagnosed with high-functioning autism two years ago. Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. Peter suffers from extreme anxiety – his whole life is based around fear and he struggles with social communication. He can easily misinterpret situations and conversation. Living and coping in a world designed for neurotypical people is difficult and challenging and can lead to behaviour issues. For Peter the little things are the BIG things.

Being a parent of an autistic child can be extremely challenging: we face constant struggles, such as explaining on an almost daily basis how Peter thinks and about the condition itself. It can be tiring and frustrating. When the opportunity arose to join the National Police Autism Association as the Deputy Coordinator for my Force, it was an offer I could not refuse. It’s given me the opportunity to raise awareness about the condition. I want to ensure the negative images of autism are challenged. The role has allowed me to pass on my knowledge of the condition and help with the education in how to recognise people with autism and how to understand what steps can be taken in order to communicate and deal with autistic people positively. My lead coordinator and I have recently conducted training sessions with new PCSOs and police officers where we have given input on the subject of autism – the feedback suggests these have been both beneficial and enlightening. We will continue to work with our colleagues raising autism awareness and we encourage everyone to join the NPAA to learn more or seek support. You don’t need to be directly affected to join, just an interest in learning more.

I can empathise with colleagues who themselves may be parents or carers, and who may be going through similar challenges as myself. I have gained an understanding of how difficult and stressful it can be, the challenges, and indeed rewards of raising a child on the autistic spectrum. Knowing you are not alone can make a real difference.

Autism has been highlighted a lot recently in the media with TV dramas such as The A Word and documentaries by celebrities including Chris Packham, who himself has autism. I think it is fantastic the way that my Force and others are embracing autism awareness, and I believe together we can make a real impact in raising awareness and understanding of autism, both within the police service and the wider community.

Guest Blog: Permission to be me

The following blog was sent to us by a serving police Sergeant – the officer’s identity has been withheld due to family confidentiality.

My wife and I have always joked about my quirkiness. “I’m sure you have some form of autism”, she would say to me. Although it was said in jest, deep down we both knew it was a distinct possibility that I was on the autism spectrum.

After my daughter was born my wife and I started to see some distinct similarities between her social interactions and mine, so we continued to wonder.

In 2016 I was successful in getting an interview for promotion, but unfortunately missed out by a small margin. When I received my interview feedback I was convinced that I had been wronged in the marking of my answers. In fact, it turned out that I had interpreted some of the questions too literally and so didn’t answer what was actually being asked of me. It took me several months of deconstructing my interview in my mind to realise that I had fallen foul of a common trait of the autism spectrum – literal translation. Was this my fault or a process design flaw I wondered?

I began reading up on autism, searching the internet for more information to gain a greater understanding. The more I looked, the more boxes I began to tick. I came across an online questionnaire, often used as an early diagnostic tool. I was really pleased with my high score on the questionnaire, as I always enjoyed a good exam result, however the score was an indicator of a high likelihood of autism spectrum condition (ASC).

All evidence indicated a likely ASC diagnosis, but I questioned what good it would be in my thirties to have such a diagnosis? After all, ASC cannot be treated, it is merely a ‘different’ or ‘non-typical’ way of interacting with and processing the world around you; something I have lived with all of my life, though few people have ever known.

A diagnosis now at this stage in life would not change anything.

However, I read a few articles explaining diagnosis in adulthood can be a good thing, helping to provide self-acceptance for who you are and for those around you to begin to understand your quirks. It could also help to seek reasonable adjustments at work.

I went to my GP, who had to seek funding for an adult assessment, but within around 10 weeks I had my diagnosis. It was confirmed that I was autistic, following several questionnaires and a full day assessment with two psychologists.

The assessment process was uncomfortable, reliving uncomfortable parts of my childhood and teens in some detail; my difficulties forming friendships, spending large periods of time on my own and the challenges I encountered in suppressing my quirks to the people around me.

Now, I am not so much coming to terms with my diagnosis, but more like coming to terms with being ‘me’. I am now making less excuses for the way I am, embracing my quirks and being true to who I really am – rather than what I think everyone else expects me to be.

It isn’t easy being, thinking and doing things in ways that are unfamiliar to most other people, but with acceptance also comes the realisation that my differences are the root of my strengths.

Diagnosis hasn’t ‘fixed’ me, but it has released me to finally be myself.

Spot the difference

By Claire Masterton
NPAA Vice-Chair

I’m a Sergeant in Police Scotland. I have nine and a half years’ service. A couple of months ago I moved into a departmental role, however until that point I had been in frontline operational policing for my entire career. I’m currently waiting for an Inspector promotion interview, having been supported by line managers and my Senior Management Team for promotion, as – well – competent. I’m a qualified Police Incident Officer. A response driver. I’m public order trained. I do all the things you do every day.

I’m also autistic.

I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in 2015, aged 33. I was a Response Sergeant at the time at a very busy station with a team of 13. I’d self-diagnosed a few years before that after happening across an article on Asperger’s and recognising myself in every single aspect described. It was a lightbulb moment – where everything I’d found hard, everything I’d struggled with suddenly made sense. I did some reading and found out more about Asperger’s – that it is is a form of autism – and was happy to leave it at that, just knowing a little bit more about myself, knowing there was an explanation.

Did you know that more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are autistic? That’s over 700,000. There are a lot more males than females diagnosed, although the number of women is rising. There are many reasons bandied about for this, including the argument that girls/women can hide their problems better and are therefore missed or not diagnosed. The National Autistic Society (NAS) describes autism as: “a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them”. Some people don’t like the term ‘disability’ and prefer ‘condition’, but that’s a blog in itself… To illustrate this for you, I went through my childhood sincerely believing that I must have missed the class at school that taught you how to make friends! Communication issues can be verbal or non-verbal, autistic people famously often struggle with body language or facial expressions – including their own. My Chief Inspector recently spent a day thinking she’d gravely offended me because I didn’t get my facial expression ‘right’ during our conversation – I thought I was portraying ‘interest’ which apparently came across as ‘deadpan angry’!

Autism is regarded as a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. It’s a lifelong condition: we were born this way, it’s not a disease, there’s no cause and no cure. We’re also all different. I might find things hard that another autistic person has no issue with (albeit we do share some common traits). Autism is often described as a spectrum. It’s meant to indicate that there are many different parts to the condition, however it can leave people with the impression that there’s a straight line between ‘mild’ and ‘severe’ autism. This really isn’t the case, as some people who may not have many problems with one aspect of the condition might be really struggling in another area or might be ‘masking’.

Masking is what we do to appear ‘normal’ – changing our natural behaviours to fit into the neurotypical (non-autistic) world. I do this a lot, and if anecdote is to be believed, so do many on the spectrum (particularly women). I’ve gathered 36 years of experience in the world and I have learned how to behave in social situations. I’ve learned scripts and rules to help me to fit in. I’ve stood quietly at the back of the room until I worked out what to do. I’ve learned that if I smile and laugh a lot it disarms people and they like you. I’ve learned that it’s polite to look at people when you’re speaking to them even though it makes my eyes water and it’s all I end up thinking about, losing focus on the conversation and probably missing important information.

Consider this: I assume many of you learned a language in school. Imagine being told you had to speak that language all day every day at work. You know some words, you can string a few sentences together, and as time goes on you’d get better at it. But it’s tiring, all that concentrating. You miss quite a lot of the conversation and you feel stupid sometimes when all the other people just seem to understand so easily. And when you get home at the end of the day you just want to relax, right? Just go back to your own language, not have to pretend you understand, not have to worry about missing stuff or focus so hard all the time. That’s what masking is like.

Masking got me my diagnosis. As a Response Sergeant I went in every day, dealt with whatever incidents were thrown our way and looked after my team to the very best of my ability. Then I went home and spent rest days totally burnt out, anxious, trying to recover enough to go back for the next set of shifts and do it all again. I got my diagnosis so that I could take it to the Force and ask for help as I recognised that I could not go on like that. At first it was slow going, but my immediate line managers were excellent and gave me a lot of support. There wasn’t a lot I could do on Response in terms of reasonable adjustments, but in my next role as a Community Sergeant I was able to put things into place that helped me greatly, like a flexible working pattern to give me a ‘recovery day’ and minimising my use of the telephone (many autistic people hate the phone).

A diagnosis led me to understand myself, which is the first step to getting other people to understand and accept differences. I know, for example, that I prefer written instructions, and that I’ll follow a conversation much better if I can relax and focus on the words, not worry about how long I’ve been staring at someone to make eye contact. I can explain to people now that I might not look at them, and they know that I’m not rude, or bored. I know that if I have a few different meetings during the day that it’ll tire me out, and that I might speak a bit more slowly sometimes when I’m trying to put complex thoughts into words. I also know that I have many strengths alongside the things I find hard, just like everyone else does. I’ve been able to speak out and help others experiencing similar circumstances.

Contrary to first impressions, policing can be an ideal career for an autistic person. We love rules and routine. I wear the same thing every day and work a shift pattern that doesn’t change. Yes, you need ‘people skills’, but these can be learned, and if you think about it, in almost every interaction an officer has they’re in charge of the conversation. They decide which questions need asked, what information is required. They’re in control (we love to be in control!). Autistic people are often good at taking in vast amounts of information, remembering details, cutting through the superfluous stuff and recognising what’s important. I’ve often amazed (frightened) my team by remembering instructions for an obscure task I read on an email years ago! Getting autistic people into the organisation and progressing them is where we fall down – but that’s a whole other blog…