Category Archives: Reblog

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. ∎

“I am quirky, I am different, but I am not less”

By Andy Marsh
Chief Constable, Avon & Somerset Constabulary

Monday 26th March marks the start of World Autism Awareness Week. Last year around this time, Sgt Adam O’Loughlin wrote about his own diagnosis and experience of autism; in his blog, Adam decried those people who call it a disorder. He said there’s nothing wrong with him, but explained that autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person experiences the world around them and how they communicate and relate to others. He said: “I am quirky, I am different, but I am not less”.

The blog prompted lots of comments: people welcomed Adam’s honesty and openness, and shared their own experiences or those of family and friends. Since then, Adam’s become our first Force Lead for autism, and the National Police Autism Association’s Communications Officer.

It’s a shocking fact that 86% of autistic people are unemployed, but thankfully neurodiversity – encompassing conditions such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD – is recognised now in definitions of diversity and inclusion. Understanding and being more aware of the condition of autism is important: it helps us recognise and understand the condition in others, including detainees. In the last year, Avon & Somerset Constabulary has carried out a review of the risk assessment for detainees. In the past they haven’t been asked if they’ve ever been diagnosed with autism. Asking them about their mental health isn’t enough – many people with autism would say no to a learning disability and mental health question; autism is neither and so the condition goes undisclosed.

So once again we’re leading the way nationally. From now on anyone booked into custody in Avon & Somerset who discloses they’re autistic, or who a custody officer suspects of being autistic, will be treated as vulnerable and an appropriate adult will be called to give them support. Work is underway nationally to change the risk assessment to include this additional question, but we’re not waiting for that.

It’s this kind of determination and innovative thinking that’s helped us achieve a steady improvement in the outcomes of our HMIC PEEL inspections over the last couple of years. At the time of writing, HMIC are due to publish the results of their Effectiveness Inspection; they reviewed our effectiveness in investigating crime and reducing re-offending; at protecting those who are vulnerable from harm, and supporting victims; and at tackling serious organised crime. The results are embargoed until tomorrow so I can’t give you any details other than to say we were found to be GOOD in all three categories, an improvement on last year when we were only good in two of the three.

I’ve been quite open about my ambition for us to become an outstanding Force. But it’s much more than just an HMIC finding: we already have many outstanding people doing an outstanding job – like Adam and many, many more Avon & Somerset officers, staff and volunteers. Last week at the Bristol Awards I heard some remarkable stories from our own people and members of the general public. Lots of Royal Humane Society awards for lifesaving and bravery and two Crown Court Commendations, both for investigations into historic sex offences, one dating back to when I was still at school. And of course in Wiltshire your support, and support from 14 other Forces, has been a very public demonstration of our outstanding British police service. To all those of you who have been involved, cancelling rest days to be there when you were needed, thank you again.

I know resources are tight and a lack of them sometimes limit our ability to do everything we’d like to. All we can do is aim to be the best we can be. And that’s good enough for me; if that’s our shared aim then I don’t think there’s any doubt of reaching my – our – ambition to be outstanding.


This blog was originally published on the Avon & Somerset Constabulary intranet – reproduced here with kind permission of Avon & Somerset Constabulary